Accepting Ourselves

Emor, Leviticus 21:1−24:23

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg

As my community's students are preparing for exams, I find myself reminiscing about when I was in school. My sister or I would come home and exclaim, "Mom, Dad, I got a B!" My parents' motto was that, as long as my sister and I tried our best, we should take pride in our efforts. Admittedly, I tend to strive for perfection; I set my sights high, but that can also be problematic. There are more important things than getting a perfect grade. This week's Torah portion, Parashat Emor, seems to suggest that God demands perfection, but on further examination calls us to accept ourselves - blemishes, imperfections, and all.

The Torah describes who may serve as priests, and who is disqualified from the priesthood. We read: "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; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm…" (Leviticus 21:17-19). I cringe each year as I read this passage. The Torah seems to be modeling discrimination, excluding those with disabilities from serving as priests.

However, we also read in the book of Genesis that everyone is created b'tzelem elohim - in the image of God. If we are all made in the Divine Image, shouldn't we all be permitted to serve? I was taught to celebrate who I am and take pride in myself. God's very specific demands seem to contradict my confidence - or do they?

Our people have struggled with this text for generations. Medieval commentators emphasized that the priests and the sacrificial offerings needed to be free of blemish, but anyone was welcome to bring a sacrifice to the Temple. In other words, the priest and the sacrifice did not function as representatives of human values or ideals, but rather as ritual instruments. Just as we would not use a broken hammer to fix our homes, we would not use a blemished animal to repair our relationship with God. For some, this commentary makes the passage easier to swallow, but I find the implication continues to offend. All of us are differently abled, we should celebrate our unique forms.

The rabbis of the Talmud were troubled by this passage as well. A famous tale is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55b-56a: After being publicly embarrassed at a banquet, Bar Kamsa inferred that since none of the rabbis present objected to the treatment he received, they agreed with it. So, Bar Kamsa spoke with the king of Rome, telling him that the Jews were planning a rebellion. The king did not believe Bar Kamsa, so Bar Kamsa told him to send a sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem and see if it would be placed on the altar. The king agreed. On the way, Bar Kamsa inflicted a minor wound on the lip of the animal. It was so small that, by almost all standards, it would not be considered a blemish.

When the animal arrived at the Temple, the rabbis examined it and saw the blemish. They didn't know what to do. Although Jewish law forbade offering such an animal, they reasoned that not offering it could endanger them and cause a breach with the king.

However, Rabbi Zacharia ben Avkolus disagreed, fearing that if they accepted this animal, people would then assume animals with blemishes could be brought to the altar. Rabbi Zacharia's opinion was followed, but later rabbis would teach that this extreme piety led to the destruction of the Temple and exile from our homeland. The rabbis appear to suggest that halachah, Jewish law, ought to be put aside when it leads to destructive, mean, and alienating behavior.

What does perfection mean and how do we aspire for it? Or should we perhaps be re-focusing our attention elsewhere. Often, we must work on ourselves before we can accept others. We're called to recognize that no one person or thing is perfect, that rather than aiming for a superficial 100%, we should instead direct our whole heart to accepting ourselves. After all, are we not all "perfect" in God's eyes? Is it not more important for our behavior to be closer to "perfection?" Such inclusive behavior can have a grand impact on shaping a healthy and inclusive society.

Throughout our lives, many of us will face our own tests. We will be called to respond to intolerance and apathy of various levels by standing up to create kind, caring communities. For this test, anything less than 100% is unacceptable. May we do our best to appreciate each person for their gifts and take pride in who we are as individuals.

Originally published: