Leviticus 21 -24
Do you expect perfection of your spiritual leaders?
Do you demand a lot out of your leaders? Do you find that you demand a certain level of perfection in your spiritual leaders and rabbis? Can a leader with defects still be useful and inspiring to the community?
In age of the Bible and when the ancient Temples stood, the role of spiritual leadership was held by the kohanim, the Temple priests. This whole section of Torah is related the Temple sacrifice and to the sanctity of these priests.
I come to you today, with my eye drawn to this one section related to the demanding qualities and the harsh disqualifying physical characteristics which pertain to a kohen – a priest. To the section related to disabilities which disqualified a priest from religious service, specifically the odd topic of broken bones.
Though I am not a kohen or rabbi, I am recognized as a leader among many of you. I am returning after some time of being away from the written and scholarly world because of issues relating to broken bones, tumors and surgery; all of which has still left me unable to write well. Yet all the while maintaining my vital active service in my community and synagogue through these limitations. All this has me feeling pretty sympathetic to the priests in this story. But enough about me for now, let us jump right into the lesson and I’ll explain my current struggle along the way.
Now I don’t mean to be presumptuous and equate my work with that of the kohannim – the Temple priests. The role of the kohen was more demanding than any job I can possible think of, not just in laborious physical demands and responsibilities.
“In Biblical times, the role of the kohen, temple priests, was an extraordinarily demanding one, and not just in terms of the workload. There was also an expectation that the priests would attempt to do better than a good job – to approach, in fact, perfection in a variety of ways – and that anything that compromised this perfection would render the priest unfit for sacred duty. We’ve seen this other parashiyot where God makes precise and detailed rules for the way a priest should set the temple up and maintain it, how a priest should conduct the sacrifices, even how the priest should dress. Again and again there is the sense that doing things a little bit wrong makes everything turn out extremely wrong.”
The demands upon the kohen were also extraordinary in regard the physical and carnal characteristics it demanded of these leaders. In them, the Torah also demanded a certain level of perfection. And this is what we find described in the greatest detail here in parshat Emor.
In this week’s Torah portion we read of all the ways by which one may become disqualified from the sacrificial service. These laws fall into two categories.
This first category is dealt with in our first aliyah – in our first reading from Leviticus 21:1-15 – concerning that which makes a priest tamei, ritually impure. Such as defiling oneself by coming in contact with the dead, except for the case of a close relative. In like manner the Torah also describes other defiling features, such as shaving one’s head in certain fashions and cutting one’s flesh for the dead. Among this is also includes other defilements and demands, such as those related to forbidden sexual unions: a sexual union with a harlot; or marrying a non-virgin; taking a widow or divorced woman as a wife.
These things are generally understood as clearly being a matter which one has a choice regarding. These things presumably can be remedied, as they are only temporary restrictions. The disqualifications are conditional and specific. This state of tumah which disqualifies him from duty is consequential. Therefore one can restore himself from this state and recompose himself. Even in the matter of forbidden relationships for a priest, this can be solved by sending his paramour away and repenting. Once he does, he can then return to the sacrificial service.
And then there is this second category which starts in our second aliyah – Leviticus 21:6 until the end of the chapter – covering that which rendered a priest mum, or blemished. And in this the Torah becomes even more specific and demanding. We are left to read a number of disabilities which render one unfit for sacrificial service: being blind, maimed or lame; having abnormally long or short limbs; having broken bones. And it also lists other unusual abnormalities which it lumps together; having a hunchback; dwarfism; cataracts; permanent lesions and sores; and even usual disqualifications like having crushed testes makes the list!
This second category of things – those things which are considered blemishes – these are the most striking of all because these things are all matters which a person does not have any choice or control over. These were seen as permanent disabilities, and therefore they permanently disqualified one from their priestly service.
It’s truly astounding to realize that the kohanim were required to be utterly flawless, even in the matters which he has no control over. He had to be free of all these impediments.
This is something which modern readers undoubtedly find shocking, as a form of discrimination. But some of us can almost understand their antiquated mentality of why this was required. Why it was important for Temple priests to be free from these “defects.” Why a certain level of perfection needed to be maintained.
Before I start to diverge in thought, I want to go back and share with you one other precious observation by Ebenbach though:
“Tough to be a kohen, for sure, and understandably – these men were involved in the most important work of the community, work crucial to the soul. What they did on a daily basis could either elevate us towards the divine or, if done poorly, could leave us cut off, bereft. What they did mattered. ”
I appreciate that as an artist he has come to understands the mechanics of the drama and the physical aesthetics, all of which were seen as necessary to facilitate temple worship. He then poses a question to other artists and modern readers in the end. Does an artist have to be perfect to produce art? He concludes that no, he clearly doesn’t. However, one also shouldn’t be riddled with personal issues which distract and get in the way of creating that art.
For a moment I want us to step back into the text to they key verse which caught my interest here. A verse which perks my interest, but which also is kind of a painful subject for me right now in my personal life, quite literally.
In the middle of the listing all these blemishes by which they are disqualified from sacrificial service, we find this listed:
“Or a man who has a broken foot |
or a broken hand.” |
אוֹ אִישׁ, אֲשֶׁר–יִהְיֶה בוֹ שֶׁבֶר רָגֶל,
אוֹ ,שֶׁבֶר יָד.
“O ish asher vo shever ragel, o shever yad.”
From this we derive that a kohen who has broken bones may not serve as a priest for the offering of sacrificial offerings. Specifically, having one’s leg or arm broken, as the text literally reads.
Now today in the modern age we don’t have sacrificial worship led by kohanim, instead have prayer’s as offerings. And we engage in learning of the Torah which is led by our clergy. Our leaders are Rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and often characters like myself. And luckily for us moderns, we don’t have so many restrictions upon us. And our responsibilities are quite different. Those of us who work for the Jewish community still do the crucial work of the soul and ministering to people’s needs, just in a different fashion.
Work which isn’t isn’t quite so back breaking, which doesn’t require the handling and dismembering of animals. Thankfully.
The most physical work I ever have to do is the carrying of some Torah scrolls around at synagogue and helping as gabbai during the Torah service. Helping out the clergy at the bima. And caring for the sacred scrolls as we transition between the ritual readings and several high points in the service. In a small congregation like ours, my knowledge and assistance in facilitating this is most often needed. Yet even this has come with some great difficulty for me lately, and has left me requiring even a bit of assistance myself.
For the past few months I been notably nursing my left hand and arm. And I still currently find myself wrapped up in a series of cumbersome bandages and attention grabbing casts. All this related to some broken bones in one of my hands.
This issue all began a few months ago when I started experiencing pain in my left hand. Thinking that the pain was just something passing and being quite used to physical pains, I ignored it at first. Then one day I heard a crack in my hand, followed by terrible pain. And even then I ignored it for a few more weeks. I didn’t see a whole lot physically wrong at first, but then came the swelling. Of course everyone in the synagogue told me to see a medical specialist, which eventually I did get seen by once the condition became too hard to ignore.
In the end the doctors found a lesion growing out of the bone of my left index finger. Surgeons then identified it as a huge tumor growing out of my bone marrow, one which had been silently growing inside for some time. Getting fatter until its expansion fractured the bones in two places on its way out. A tumor breaking my bones, from the inside out.
The doctors quickly scheduled me for surgery, to remove the tumor and the damaged bone. And the surgeon also rebuild my hand from bone fragments sawed away and harvested from up near my elbow. The tumor was then submitted for biopsy, to make sure it wasn’t cancerous. And the hand and arm was then set in place, leaving me all bandaged up as I was sent home for a few months of recovery.
Of course, any of you know me well enough see that I have been just as stubborn and determined as ever during this recovery. I’m hardly the type of person to lay back and take it easy. Though it appears that I have been missing from the written world, this has actually been the most active time in my life both as a religious figure and as a community organizer.
All through this crisis I’ve been planning all my many doctors visits and events narrowly close, just to keep up with my civic and religious duties. And just five days out of surgery, I even had the honor of giving a long awaited tour of historic Jewish Boyle Heights to the sweet people of my synagogue. And then from there jumping right into the thick of the Passover holiday. I have all the while been determined to stay in bed no longer than necessary, quickly returning to the joys of public service. Making public appearances as I’ve been capable.
Now I realized I’m not completely healed. I spend a lot of time teaching and directing things right now, but I’m a lot less hands-on with projects right now. Though the bones are set, I am not completely healed yet.
A reminder of this came a few weeks ago when my dear friend Eileen, who is like a mother to me, scolded me as I took a Torah in arm. It was a Passover holiday service which required more than one scroll, and due to a slip in choreography I ended up with a Torah scroll in my good arm during a set of prayers. Carefully cradled so as not to drop it, and to prevent a disruption to the special holiday service. Though as I turned to face the crowd I saw Eileen rightfully wagging her finger at me and later scolding us guys for letting me do it, in her motherly way of course. She is among the many of you who are now teaching me to slow down and how to accept that I’m not whole. And also how to also be patient with myself, as it will heal in due time.
Now you see why I am so drawn to this reading from our parsha about broken bones, specifically relating to the hand and arms of a priest in public service. Now it’s not that I’m just fixated with this issue of broken bones on my own. This Torah portion also seems to be quite fixated and very concerned regarding the topic of broken bones.
Why is this issue of broken bones so important? And why is this condition lumped up with the permanent disabilities?
For those of you who are part of my synagogue family, we will find an answer suggested in the Etz Chaim Torah volumes that we use for service and learning, found here in the isles. [see Etz Chaim, page 720; also cited by Ebenbach] It can be logically deduced, and so it is also suggested by some rabbis, that in the ancient world broken bones were indeed a permanent condition in most cases. In a world without precise medicine and surgical ability, a bone could not be properly set. And for this reason it would often continue to be a source of pain and disruption in one’s body for the rest of their life.
Unlike my broken bones as a modern person with the benefit of medical science to restore me, the same type of injury suffered by one in the ancient world was prone to remaining a permanent disability.
However, the prohibition against a kohen who has broken these bones is not just a practical one, so as not to have one physically disrupting the temple service. Our rabbis also point to another more ritually significant reason, one which keeps with the theme of sacredness which is stressed here in this sacrifice heavy book of Leviticus.
Parshat Emor is said to mention broken bones as disqualifying blemishes three additional times, when in relation to the animals themselves which are being offered up by the priests. In Leviticus chapter 22 – in our third reading – we are going to see this mentioned in verses 20, 22, and 25. Rashi teaches us that one is not permitted to (1) consecrate, (2) slaughter, nor (3) dash the blood on the altar of an animal with broken bones as blemishes. This blemish rendered the offering unfit at every step of the way, and was considered an abomination. [see Rashi, Lev. 22:22]
It is seemingly understandable that just as G-d required perfection for His offerings, so too He also required the seemliness of perfection in those priests who were appointed to offer them up.
Now before we move on, I need to remind us that we are talking about a blemished kohen only being disqualified from being a priest who could sacrifices offerings on the altar. He is rendered unfit for this service alone, however his state as a priest remained. As long as he remained ritually pure he could continue to partake of his benefit as a priest in eating of the priestly portions, as we see also described for the rest of the priestly household here as the Torah continues on to the end of the chapter.
The sages and rabbis also held that a priest was still viable to participate in the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing, one of the highest points of the ancient service. We know very well that the blemished priest could and did extend their hands in blessing towards the people of Israel in the ancient Temple, when it was physically possible for them to do so.
Now there is a rabbinic prohibition, one which relates to the calling up of a kohen with blemishes. A revealing text, we find in the Mishnah:
“A priest whose hands are deformed, may not raise them [to bless the people]. Rabbi Yehudah also prohibits it to a priest whose hands are stained with woad or with madder roots, because the people stare at him.”
כהן שיש בידיו מומין,לא ישא את כפיו. רבי יהודה אומר: אף מי שהיו ידיו צבועות אסטיס ופואה, לא ישא את כפיו, מפני שהעם מסתכלין בו.
Generally we know that the prohibition, both by biblical and rabbinic standards. relates to noticeable deformities. One is prohibited from ascending if they are deformed either from their body or upon their body. The first being a noticeable deformity growing from the body, much like my tumor once it grew out the bone and to the surface of my hand.
This latter case of hands simply being stained, being an example of blemishes caused upon the body; presumably staining his hand dying cloth. A blemish to his body, simply as result of a priest having to take up a trade to help make ends meet. This staining was an occupational hazard and not a deformity. The marks of a working-class man. Yet it disqualified kohanim nonetheless.
The reason given for this prohibition is the most interesting thing yet. Why should a kohen be prohibited from performing his sacred service? Surprisingly, it’s not because G-d simply doesn’t want “inferior” people offering up His worship; a thought which somehow comes to mind for many fundamentalists. No, a more sensible reason is provided for us. So that this person will not be gawked at as they perform this sacred service.
In the Gemara we would later see this prohibition also seemingly extended to feet injuries, speech impediments and even being blind in one eye. All these things which might cause people to stare at the priest as he blesses. Interestingly, in the end the rabbis proved this prohibition to merely be pragmatic, as the talmud would finally conclude that if a kohen was well known enough that his condition raised no suspicion among the congregation then his service was permitted. (See Talmud, Megillah 24b)
Again, this prohibition is purely pragmatic. So that when a kohen ascends to engage in the birkat kohanim – the priestly blessing – that people should not inadvertently stare up at the kohen. [It is our custom to not look up at their extended hands as they are blessing, in reverence and awe.] Disrupting and distracting from the sacredness of this blessing, which in many traditional congregations is still one of the highest point of our service.
So now let us answer for ourselves, why is this point so important? Why is this even an issue at all? The answer should be obvious to all of us. The truth, it is the awe and wonder of the moment is what makes our worship so very powerful. A great deal of the power of the service is the drama, as it rises and falls with choreographed precision. Prayers with words which are carefully chosen and precisely delivered, invoked to elevate both emotion and spirit.
Yet, our tradition knows how distractible we are as people, especially to anything which we perceive as unusual or off-putting. Be it found in the offering, or found in the person of the priest offering it.
Our rabbis narrow in on this point in the Sefer HaChinuk, regarding our biblical prohibition against the elevation of a kohen with blemishes: [Thank you to Aharon Varady for helping me properly locate this citation.]
“From the root of the mitzvah: Since people ascribe value to activities based on the importance of the performers of those activities. A person who appears imposing and well mannered will find more favor in all that he does before those who see him. In the opposite case, a person who is of low form and unusual appearance will seem unworthy in the eyes of his beholders if his actions are any less than perfect. It is therefore appropriate that the person on whom atonement depends be of pleasant appearance in all facets so that people will attach their thoughts to him. Aside from this, it is possible that in his perfect form there is a hint to certain concepts, for as a person contemplates [the perfect form] he will purify his soul and elevate it. Therefore it is improper for there to be anything unusual in any form in him, lest the soul of the contemplative be scattered due to the anomaly, for it would then be moved from the purpose.”
משרשי המצוה. לפי שרב פעלות בני אדם רצויות אל לב רואיהם לפי חשיבות עושיהן, כי בהיות האדם חשוב במראהו וטוב במעשיו, ימצא חן ושכל טוב בכל אשר יעשה בעיני כל רואיו, ואם יהיה בהפך מזה פחות בצורתו ומשנה באבריו, ואם אינו ישר בדרכיו לא יאותו פעלותיו כל כך אל לב רואיו, על כן באמת ראוי להיות השליח שהכפרה תלויה עליו איש חן יפה תאר ויפה מראה נאה בכל דרכיו, למען יתפשו מחשבות בני איש אחריו. ומלבד זה, אפשר שיש בשלמות צורתו, רמז לענינים, שמתוך מחשבות האדם בהן, תטהר נפשו ותתעלה, ולכן אין ראוי בשום צד שיהיה בו שנוי צורה מכל צורותיו, פן תתפזר נפש המחשב מצד השנוי ותנוד מן החפץ.
Interesting, and also very revealing. The truth is we as a congregation are often quite consciously observant regarding the leaders offering up our blessings. Yes. We hold them to a higher level of accountability. Just as close to faultlessness as we expect in our worship, we also expect this to be embodied in the people offering it up before us. A distinguished person, but not one whose issues are distracting.
We expect the art of our religious experience to shine forth, without the artists being a distraction to the creation of that art.
Yet, in the end our tradition finally comes to recognize that the “blemish” is not always such a great matter of disturbance for the sufferer himself, but for the congregation instead. It lays fault for any exclusion squarely upon us as a congregation, and not on the person himself.
I’m glad to say that at the synagogue where I am a member and teacher, at Beth Shalom of Whittier, we have an inclusive and progressive community. One where unkind gawking or unfair exclusion is unthinkable. We welcome everyone to participate, including those with disabilities and special needs. We find this to be as blessing and not a distraction!
And this is what I have in mind and heart today. This is what turns-over in my head as I ascend the bimah this week. A thought I keep in mind as I once again snicker at myself, unnoticed to anyone but myself. As I secure my tallit around me and over my ever present punk rock jacket, the one with the anti-swastika pin. As I march forward unlike any other guy in the room: in Doc Martin boots, studded belt, piercings here and plugs there. A queer and ethnic person. A working-class Latino, from the wrong side of the tracks. Imposing only in personality, but a shadow of as man I used to be. Who is now far too thin already from my long battle with chronic conditions and constant threats of terminal illness.
There are so many things about me that are unusual and sometimes breathtaking at first sight, altogether different from what people expect of a “good Jewish boy.” And so many hard issues related to my health and body, things which make me less than whole. And yet the only thing that makes people stare, in loving concern of course, is my brightly bandaged hand and arm. Sometimes distraction remains, but it’s a good thing in this case!
I am coming to realize a truth, one demonstrated by you all. That despite the superficial blemishes people like myself may have, we can still be inspiring and a joy to the community.
For months now I have risen before many of you to say some prayers and help us elevate our worship, burdened with these noticeable casts; white, black, red, and black again. Mostly helping people as I try to be as hands-off as possible. Hopefully for this week is for the last time, bizrat hashem. Thankfully the tumor was found to be benign, I will make a full recovery. I will be back at it after some physical therapy helps helps me get it moving again. But thank you all for your support through all of this. Shabbat shalom!
- Parshat Emor (2012) – Converts: Equals, or does our tradition give special treatment?
- Parshat Behar (2012) – Our Responsibility to Our Countrymen and Resident Aliens
- Parshat Bechukotai (2012) – Answering the Question: “Why did G-d make this happen to me?”