Parashat Emor details the requirements for Kohanim (high priests) to be fit to officiate at the sacrificial altar and to partake of the sacred offerings. Just as the animals that were offered had to be perfect, so too, the priest himself had to be unblemished. The Torah instructs that he wasn’t permitted to serve if he had any kind of physical defect, if he came into contact with the dead or if he married a divorced woman.
You might find it troubling that the Kohanim had to be “perfect.” Doesn’t it contradict other teachings in the Torah, such as the notion that all people are created in the image of God, or last week’s parshah that commands compassion and respect for the deaf and blind?
Here we’re instructed that anyone with a disability is disqualified, that anyone with a blemish, a scar, or a broken bone is unfit to enter the sanctuary. Why does the Torah disqualify Kohanim who’ve touched real-life experiences like death, divorce or disability?
Maimonides explains in the Guide for the Perplexed (3:45): “The multitude does not estimate man by his true form but by the perfection of his bodily limbs and the beauty of his garments.” In other words, the sanctuary and the Temple were to be revered and respected, and the masses would only find acceptable beautiful, handsome, perfect people with nice clothes. So if the priest wasn’t perfect, the people might think that the Temple and God might not be perfect, either.
We might find this outrageous, but is it really so different from today? We expect our spiritual leaders, our politicians, and our celebrities to be perfect. We look for their flaws, we analyze their relationships, we critique their clothes, we judge their weight — and if their blemishes are too great, then they, like the priests, are disqualified from service.
In ancient times, we expected the priests to be perfect because we mistakenly equated beauty with goodness — and we still do this today.
You may have been one of the 50 million people who recently watched Scottish singer Susan Boyle on YouTube. Why did she get so much attention and become an overnight sensation? Because watching her revealed to us our own prejudice in judging people based on their beauty. People found it moving, inspiring and even redemptive to see someone who is so far from our society’s standards of beauty reveal such talent and be so appreciated and accepted. She revealed the hidden treasure that is found not in a glossy, airbrushed façade of perfection, but in being our authentic selves with all of our imperfections.
After all, who among us is perfect? It’s a wonder that there were any priests who were fit for service, especially in the days before plastic surgery and Botox! Who hasn’t touched death or disability or divorce? Who doesn’t have a defect of some sort?
Over the years, Judaism evolved, and our thinking about “perfection” evolved as well. With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the priestly sacrificial system gave way to rabbinic Judaism. And the rabbis actually valued leaders for their imperfection! They even say in the Talmud (Yoma 22b): “One should not appoint anyone as leader of a community, unless he carries a basket of bugs around his neck.”
What does this mean? Contact with impure creatures made a person impure. Interestingly, these very “bugs” are also mentioned in our parshah as being something that renders a priest impure and unfit for service.
It seems that the rabbis wanted leaders who, unlike the priests, had “impurities” and could be honest about their imperfections, who wore their flaws around their necks. They understood that perfection is unrealistic for leaders or for anyone else, for that matter.
The priests might have needed to seem perfect in the eyes of the public in order to serve in the sanctuary, but what a loss it would be for us if we were to think that only the unblemished can serve God. Rather, the opposite is true: True service comes with being honest in our flaws and being our real, imperfect selves with all of our brokenness — as it says in Psalms, “karov Adonai l’nishberei lev,” God is close to the brokenhearted.
Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.