Pirkei Avot 3:14 teaches that Rabbi Akiva said “human beings are loved because they were made in God’s image.” As a result, we are troubled by the subsequent verses in Parashat Emor that follow a list of visible physical “defects” that priests may have:
No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Eternal’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Eternal have sanctified them.
These difficult verses touch on human frailty. Torah outlines how perfect the priests are to be and yet, here we read about blemishes that set them apart. Rabbi Joseph Meszler in his book Facing Illness, Finding God, wrote “human beings’ differences are a blessing, and we are to appreciate the appearances of all kinds of people. Difference in ethnicity, appearance, and ability are all to be valued. This includes people with disabilities.” But how hard it is when one’s body is not outwardly perfect even though the Sages insisted that one’s sense of worth was not influenced by outward appearance.To be strangers in a foreign land is a well-known verse from Torah. We all know the uncomfortable feeling of being an outsider in a place where we do not speak the language or know the culture or maybe we are invited to a party and don’t know anyone. But how about when people are in a place where they do speak the language, they do know the culture, and they do know everybody yet they are strangers because of their appearance?
Many people in our society live with visible disabilities. It has taken a very long time for society to become sensitized to those with physical disabilities or “defects” and it is still not easy for those with such challenges. And there are people who struggle daily with challenges not seen by most of us. Many individuals fighting these challenges are disenfranchised – they often look fine on the outside but are living with horrendous difficulties. Yet, because nothing is seen on the outside, they are not recognized as having any problems at all. An important silent disability is mental illness. While it may be visible sometimes, it often is not. How welcoming are we to people who do not quite fit in, who cannot hold down a job, who phone in sick because of depression, or struggle with addictions? While it has taken many generations to be kind and hospitable to people in wheelchairs and even then not everyone is, we have not yet reached where we need to be for people struggling with mental illness. It is an unspoken and disenfranchised difficulty. Desperate as some people are for help, they can have difficulties asking. Perhaps they would benefit from coming together as well, but they are so ill they cannot do so and thus lose out on the benefits of community, living in isolation not necessarily by themselves but in isolation from others who know them. The Torah teaches us bayn adam lechavero – kindness between people. Perhaps we say we open our doors but how welcoming are we really? This raises some tensions in Torah. We learn in Torah about being kind to the poor, the stranger, the orphan, the widow, to our elders. We are to open our hearts and our homes to them. Does this mean only if they are perfect? Yet Torah speaks here of disabled and blemished priests.
Since Torah always raises questions for us, this prompts us to study these verses again. We read that a priest with a defect may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy, but cannot approach the altar. Thus he cannot function as an officiating priest but he still is granted the benefits of being a priest, that is, eating of the holy food of the sacrifices people bring to the Temple. He thus is still considered to have worth. So even though some priests are singled out to be unable to function as full priests, they are still to be respected and included. These verses begin with what seems horrific and yet end with wisdom about including those who have challenges but it takes work to decipher this. Nevertheless, it has taken our world a very long time to transfer these thoughts to those who live in our society who are indeed worthy but overlooked.
We have to ask ourselves: where did we go wrong? How did we lose such social wisdom? Did we ever really have it? The attainment of wisdom comes in many ways. Our parsha forces us to question: are our doors really as open as we like to think they are? During this Covid-19 pandemic, we live in isolation, some more than others, but we all experience segregation, loneliness, and seclusion to some extent, cut off from others and wanting to be with them. The world is hopeful that this tragic global crisis will pass in time. A strong lesson we can learn from this pandemic is a heightened awareness of the experience of isolation not only during a crisis but in ordinary times as well. Ben Zoma asks who is wise? Pirkei Avot 4:1 tells us “those who learn from all people”. Let us learn from all and at all times so that we may open our metaphoric doors and our hearts to everybody at all times.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).