Perfectly Imperfect

Posted on May 13, 2022 by Perfectly Imperfect

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, contains the disturbing instruction that physically disabled priests are to be barred from bringing offerings to the Sanctuary:

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; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer God’s offering by fire… (Leviticus 21:18-21)

We who are committed to the full inclusion of people with disabilities and those who are differently abled are left scratching our heads and wondering how to square these injunctions with the great moral sensitivities that characterize the Torah — compassion for the poor, love of the stranger, providing for the orphan and the widow, and so much more.

We are not alone in our distress over this apparent discrimination against disabled priests. The Bible itself contains scathing critiques of priestly hypocrisy for prioritizing ritual purity over God’s call to live righteously. As Isaiah said in the name of God:

“What need have I of all your sacrifices? / …I have no delight / in lambs and he-goats. / …New moon and Sabbath, / Proclaiming of solemnities, / Assemblies with iniquity, / I cannot abide. / …Wash yourselves clean; / Put your evil doings / Away from My sight. / Cease to do evil; / Learn to do good. / Devote yourselves to justice; / Aid the wronged. / Uphold the rights of the orphan; / Defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:11;12;16-18)

It is not physical imperfection that is loathsome to God, but moral failure — the false piety of performing rituals with meticulous attention to detail while failing to live up to God’s call for goodness and compassion. As the Prophet Hosea said in God’s name:

“For it is kindness [chesed] that I desire, not sacrifice. Obedience to God, and not burnt offerings.” Woe to the priests, declares Hosea, who have broken God’s covenant by their corruption and lawlessness. For “the priests are like bandits… who commit murder on the road to Shechem and perform debauchery.” (Hosea 6:9)

As for the physically disabled, the righteous among them are treasured by God, says Isaiah:

For thus said the Eternal God:
“As for the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
Who have chosen what I desire
And hold fast to My covenant —
I will give them, in My House
And within My walls,
A monument and a name
Better than sons or daughters.
I will give them an everlasting name
Which shall not perish. (Isaiah 56:4-5)

In our time, we are increasingly aware that idolizing images of physical perfection is having a corrosive effect on our society, especially on our teens and young adults. The airbrushed and photoshopped paragons of beauty that pervade our media create an expectation that no normal person can ever live up to, resulting in a sense of inadequacy that is degrading the self-image and mental health of our young people.

It is high time that we respond to these alarming trends by speaking in the voice of the prophet and declaring that every human soul is created in the image of God — that every person’s value is intrinsic — and is not to be measured by any external factor: not by looks, nor by possessions, nor by social status.

Over and over, we must tell our young people that they are enough. Because they are human, they are perfectly imperfect, which is the way God made each and every one of us.

At TBE there is no Torah that is more central to the education of our children than this: the religious foundation of self-love and acceptance; the inherent goodness in each person; the godly purity of every soul; and the intrinsic value of every life.

I tell every one of my students that the most important thing I will ever teach them is what they should see when they look in the mirror: a precious child of God of infinite value. And we reinforce this message through the texts we study, the prayers we recite, and, most importantly, by the way we love and care for one another.

And this is not for our children alone. We all need to learn and internalize these life affirming teachings, as Ben Azai said:

Despise no one, and call nothing useless, for there is no one whose hour does not come, and there is no thing that does not have its place. (Pirkei Avot 4:3)

We all need to recite and take to heart uplifting devotions, like this version of the morning prayer, Asher Yatzar, written by Dan Nichols.

I thank you for my life, body and soul. Help me to realize I’m beautiful and whole. I’m perfect the way I am, and a little broken too. I will live each day as a gift I give to You.

We praise You, Eternal God, Wondrous Source of health and healing.

May we all come to know and feel that there is a place in God’s House for every one of us, that “within its walls God gives us each an everlasting and eternal name,” a place of dignity and honor forevermore.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck