This week’s parasha begins with God’s instructions to Moshe concerning laws that apply to the priests alone. Unlike ordinary Israelites, the priests must hold themselves to higher standards. They may not come into contact with the dead, except for a short list of very close family members. They may not shave their heads smooth, make gashes to deform their flesh, or marry a woman who has engaged in harlotry. To some extent these injunctions make sense: The priest must remain pure to serve God, which demands a high level of propriety and decorum. Somewhat more disturbing to our modern sensibilities is the Torah’s stipulation, just a few verses later, that no one who has any sort of physical blemish may serve in the Tabernacle: “No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long…or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf…” (Leviticus 22:19-20). How did later generations make sense of the Torah’s stipulation that physical imperfections—most of which seem to be congenital, and hence no fault of the individual—render a priest unfit to serve? And what are we to make of this injunction in our modern age, when we strive to regard all people equally regardless of handicaps or disabilities?
The classical rabbinic commentators justify the prohibition on blemished priests serving in the Temple on the grounds that we are supposed to offer our best to God. Just as we would not choose a blemished animal to offer as a sacrifice, so too do we not choose a priest with a physical defect to serve in the Temple. As Chizkuni comments (Leviticus 21:18), “Seeing that they [the priests] represent the whole Jewish community, it would not seem appropriate that the community dispatch blemished people as their representatives at the court of the King of Kings.” The Tabernacle was like a palace for God, and just as a royal palace must be splendid and ornate to befit the king, so too must the Tabernacle befit the King of Kings. Rashi, in commenting on this verse, cites the prophet Malachi, who lived in the land of Israel during the Second Temple period. Malachi critiques the neglectful and corrupt priests of his day, arguing that God does not desire their worship or their sacrifices: “When you offer the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame or the sick, is it not evil? Offer it now unto your ruler – will he be pleased with you? Will he show you favor?” (1:8).
Presumably the implication of Malachi’s exhortations is that God does not desire the blind, the lame, or the sick, and will be displeased to receive them in His Temple. But the contemporary Israeli rabbi and scholar Binyamin Lau (in his book Etnachta, published by Yediot in 2009 and still untranslated) encourages us to read Malachi’s questions not as rhetorical, but as a challenge to rethink the way we relate to those with physical imperfections in our own day. Rabbi Lau cites the Talmud in Megillah (24b), which discusses the law that a priest with blemishes on his hands may not lift his arms to bless the congregation in the priestly benediction. The concern, as Rashi explains, is that priests with deformed hands would attract the attention of the congregation, which would violate the prohibition against looking at the priests at a time when God’s presence rests on them. Anyone who looks different attracts attention, which serves to distract the members of the congregation during a moment of tremendous gravity.
The Talmud goes on to cite various counterexamples of priests who were blemished but who nonetheless participated in the priestly benediction, including a priest who was blind in one eye, and a priest whose eyes and nose were always runny. In each case, the sages explain that these particular priests were “familiar figures in their towns,” and thus people were used to their defects and did not look at them askance. They looked different, but their differences were not distracting, and so it was not a problem for them to stand before the congregation and recite the priestly benediction.
As Lau explains, our challenge is to train ourselves to relate to all people with deformities and disabilities as “familiar figures” in our communities. That is, we need to take the time to get to know those who look different so that we are able to see beyond the differences. At first it can be offputting to see someone who doesn’t look or act like everyone else. But once we get to know those people, we see them beyond their disabilities and recognize their full humanity. They become familiar figures in our community – not “the blind man,” but “Danny,” or whoever he may be. When these individuals then stand before us in leadership roles, we do not look at them askance, because we see them as unique human beings whose disabilities are simply a part of who they are.
According to this understanding, the rabbis in the Talmud were taking an important first step. Even though the Torah stipulates that blemished priests could not serve in the Temple, the rabbis argued that they could serve priestly functions in our communities assuming they were well-known, familiar figures – that is, assuming the people of their communities had taken the time to get to know them beyond their superficial differences. Our challenge today is to take the rabbis one step further. Our functionaries need not be physically perfect. Indeed, the more of our prominent leaders who look different, the more desensitized we will become to those differences, and the more we will realize that all of us are different in one way or another. It is, in fact, our differences that humanize us, rendering us unique and distinct. Once we have internalized this lesson, we will be able to give a very different answer to Malachi’s questions. Will God be pleased with us? Will God show us favor? If we can look beyond our differences, then surely God can as well.