Before I decided I wanted to be a rabbi, I thought I was going to be an attorney for people with disabilities. I had a short stint as an intern at the Disability Rights Section of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. My favorite memory there involved a man who was denied a hotel room because he had a seeing eye dog. I told the hotel owner that he could either pay the guy $500 or we could take up the complaint in litigation. He chose the former.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that each year when I read parashat Emor, I wrestle with the requirement that only priests who have no defects can offer sacrifices to God.
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; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye…” (Lev. 21:18-20).
My heart sinks every time I read that.
What am I to say to the child with a disability when she reads this? How do I teach that the Torah is a text that represents the values of our Jewish tradition when this verse seems to go against Jewish values? How do I explain the seeming contradiction between this verse and verses just chapters before that declare “you shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19: 14) — verses which seem to advocate for individuals with disabilities?
When I go back to that verse, I get my clue because the rest of the verse reads as follows: “You shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:14).
What is perfection? And why was perfection required to offer a sacrifice to God?
Both the biblical view of perfection and our modern society seem to connote that perfection is, at least in part, defined by one’s outer appearance. Ancient Israelites were novices when it came to defining what it means to offer our best selves. And nowadays, Hollywood is no help either.
The Torah uses the words “anyone who has a defect…” However, the Hebrew uses the word “bo,” which can also be translated as something internal, something in us. Is it possible that God wanted us to offer our best selves internally, our best inner selves, our best versions of… our souls?
According to Rabbi Lazer Brody, author of “Chassidic Pearls,” Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, in quoting the Zohar, states that “in a place where one finds yirat shamayim — the fear of God — one finds perfection.” When we don’t fear God, we are blemished.
So if perfection is connected to fearing God, how do we practice this in our everyday lives?
One Shabbat I found myself at Gallaudet University, a university in Washington, D.C., for students who are deaf and hearing impaired. I was invited as a guest student rabbi to lead services on Shabbat. I don’t know sign language, but I worked with an interpreter beforehand to plan the service and learn how to communicate with the students. It was the first time I translated the Shema prayer not as “to hear” or “to listen.” Since these phrases are off-putting for students who are deaf, we translated them instead as “pay attention.” And so that is what I did the entire Shabbat. I paid attention.
There I was, in a place full of silence, with students who did not speak orally to each other. Ironically, it was there that I experienced one of my most spiritual Shabbatot ever, with silence enveloping me and the entire campus. It felt perfect. I felt God.
Perfection was not about their ability or lack thereof. Perfection was in the silence, in the internal, in finding my smallness in the vastness of the universe.
“Where one finds yirat shamayim — a fear of God — one finds perfection.” A fear of God is a love of God, of noticing God in the world around us. Of cleaving to the Godly potential that we each have. Of seeing the goodness in others and our joint human potential.
That’s the type of perfection that God wanted of the priests.
And that’s what God wants of us.