Many of us spend our lives searching for something that is unattainable. This unattainable thing is not a certain amount of money or material goods, not an expensive car, and not a house with a dozen rooms. The truth is that all of those items are attainable, even if only for a very few of us. What most of us search for, though, is unattainable for all of us. And what is it that we spend so much time looking for even though we will never find it? We search for perfection.
We search for perfection in every aspect of our lives. Having a meaningful and loving relationship is no longer enough because it is not perfect. Having a family that supports us is no longer enough because these same family members who support us also sometimes aggravate us and sometimes even infuriate us. And that job that we like most of the time? Well, it is a problem because it is not THE job. In other words, it is not perfect.
What is the problem looking for perfection? The problem is that none of us is perfect, no relationship is perfect, and no job is perfect. Contrary to popular belief, all the money in the world does not buy happiness, and even the image that many of us unfortunately hold up as the quintessential “perfect 10″ bodies are not perfect in any way. There are computer enhanced touch-ups that turn attractive human beings into models of perfection that the rest of us normal people could never achieve and should never even aspire to.
Interestingly enough, our Torah reading, Parashat Emor, has something to say about this quest for perfection. While we learn elsewhere in the Torah that the animal being brought for ritual sacrifice to the Mishkan (desert tabernacle) needs to be without blemish (a nice way to say “perfect”), in our reading we learn that the Kohen (priest) who officiates at the sacrifice itself must be without physical blemish as well (I am using the Torah’s terms here, not expressing my own views).
Here is what the Torah states, “No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect (Hebrew-Mum) shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s gift; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God….He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them (Leviticus 21:21 and 23).”
The reading includes a long list of what would be considered in the ancient world as a defect worthy of the exclusion of the Kohen from officiating duties. Hearing this word “mum” or “defect” today, it is hard not be pained by the Torah’s apparent understanding of physical ailments or deformities. We live in an age that I would call “dramatic inclusion,” a time where we try, many times successfully, to include differently-abled people to the best of their abilities. Steps are removed from public buildings and ramps are added, provisions are made to include those with vision or hearing impairments, and we are asked to change our language, to think long and hard about words such as “normal” and “mainstream.”
As the Etz Hayim Humash suggests (pg. 719), there are ways for us to understand this Torah rule without having our modern sensibilities insulted. Maybe the physically disabled Kohen was excluded from officiating at public sacrifices so the worshippers did not get distracted from the central part of the worship (the animal) by the physical characteristics of the Kohen, or maybe the Kohen needed to be without blemish or defect to keep the perfection of God’s sanctuary intact.
One additional reason for this rule may relate to the role of the Kohen and the person offering the sacrifice. Remember that the Kohen did not represent humanity in this situation: He represented God’s perfection. Who represented humanity? The person bringing the sacrifice. And was this person perfect? Absolutely not. The person bringing the sacrifice was as imperfect as each one of us. In representing humanity, each one of us, just like the ancient worshipper, brings our flaws and faults before God. God created us, of course, and knows everything about our flaws and faults. By bringing them forward, however, we show God that we understand that we are not perfect, and we pledge our hard work and effort to improve those things about us that we control, and to accept those parts of us that are out of our control.
In today’s day and age, we should all strive to have our homes and places of worship accept the understanding that while God is perfect, God’s creations are not. And because God’s creations are not perfect, our holy spaces should be open and inviting to all. Synagogues without ramps or elevators to help those differently abled may have stunning architecture, but they do not reflect the beauty of our tradition, which implores us to be open to all who wish to worship God. How “beautiful” can your synagogue be if it excludes those blessed with the divine spark, but not blessed with functioning legs? A true spiritual space is one that invites everyone in, and that pleads for God to accept our prayers, brokenness and all.