What do Abercrombie & Fitch models, Astronauts, and Kohanim all have in common?

This Dvar Torah was given by Rabbi SIlverman on 5/2/14

What do Abercrombie & Fitch models, Astronauts, and Kohanim all have in common? Well for starters, I could never be one. More importantly, though, each requires a level of physical perfection that often feels unattainable.

To be an Abercrombie & Fitch model, you need to be young and thin. An astronaut must have 20/20 uncorrected vision. And according to this week’s parasha, a Kohen serving in the Temple must be a male, descended from Kohanim, and without physical blemish. Blind, lame, or maimed men need not apply.

But the model needs to be fit in order to make you jealous. And the Astronaut needs perfect vision for the very practical reason of who would drive the spaceship if his glasses flew off into the vast emptiness of outer space? Unlike those two, the physical perfection of the Kohanim is not only about ability to perform tasks. Kohanim may not serve in the Temple if they have a broken foot or hand, have a crooked back, are short-statured, have a scab or crushed testes, or have wide-set eyes.

Surely having a scab or wide-set eyes should not impair one from fulfilling sacrifices!

Rambam explained that it does, saying that even if God does not discriminate based on physical looks and abilities, we humans do. In Guide for the Perplexed (3:45), he wrote, “For the masses do not evaluate people by their true, inner form, but by the perfection of their physical body and the beautify of their clothing. And the Temple was to be held in great reverence by all”.

Apparently the Temple was the precursor to Abercrombie & Fitch.

The Mishna in Megilla teaches: “A priest who has blemishes may not raise his palms [to participate in the priestly blessing]” (Megilla 24b). But the rabbis immediately take issue, not only on moral grounds but on practical grounds. They ask: “What of the priest in Rav Huna’s synagogue who had blurred vision and yet blessed the people? What of the person in Rabbi Yohanan’s synagogue who was blind and yet blessed the people?”

Clearly this ruling was at odds with their experiences, and this dichotomy between ideal priestly perfection and practical humanity caused a dissonance that needed to be addressed.

The answer given is הוא בעירו דש ההוה – these priests were familiar to their communities and accepted among them. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 128:30) rules similarly: if the priest is known by the community – and we assume that every priest is known by the community in which he lives – the disability is no longer a disqualification.

As Rabbi Alexander Kaye writes, “This is a striking psychological insight. Our focus on externalities may lead us to characterize someone by their appearance: “a blind person,” or “a person in a wheelchair,” or whatever. But once the person is known to us, their physical appearance becomes irrelevant. We know them for who they really are.”

Who they are, not what they are. The message of acceptance and valuing of difference is beautiful… but there is a piece still missing.

Rambam is talking about perfection in the Temple in Jerusalem. The rabbis in the Talmud are talking about the priests in local towns. It’s all well and good to know our local leaders and not be distracted by their physical looks. But if the Temple is supposed to represent God’s perfection, should our public leaders not also represent perfection to the best of the community’s standards? Do their imperfections impact their ability to fulfill their duties?

There are a total of 18 people who have served in national politics in our country with some kind of physical disability that would have disqualified them according to the standards set forth in this week’s parasha. That is a shockingly low number. These people range from a triple-amputee to a quadriplegic to a blind person. On one hand, I feel proud that our country elected a man in a wheelchair to its highest office for FOUR terms. On the other hand, we did it mostly without knowing he was paralyzed.

What if FDR had been our local town selectman? Would he have had to hide the effects of his polio in order to be elected? Or, having grown up with him, danced at his wedding, and perhaps even been on vacation with him when he first developed symptoms at age 39, would we have proudly voted him selectman, knowing how passionate and capable he was? Like the standards that God set for the Kohanim, it’s hard to imagine that today President Roosevelt could be elected just once on the national stage – and for that, we’d have lost out on his extraordinary contributions to the country.

Fortunately, we don’t evaluate public figures on similar criteria; otherwise, we’d be missing the genius of Stephen Hawking, the music of Stevie Wonder, the humor of Michael J. Fox. But with the overwhelming amount of media available and our judgemental tendencies, it is no longer God who is ruling people out – rather, we do first. Instead of getting to know people, we are often quick to judge them first on looks and perceived capabilities, and only second on their actual talents and ability to contribute to the world.

It’s worth noting that many of our own greatest Jewish leaders wouldn’t have qualified as Kohanim. Isaac was blind, Jacob developed a limp, Moses had a lisp, and even the Messiah is described as a leper wrapping his wounds outside the city gates.

Had the Messiah come to serve as a Kohen in the Temple, would he have been welcomed in? Surely not, for he was seen as a leper, an outsider, a distraction from the perfection of representing God. We would have looked directly past THE MOSHIACH, seen him only as a leper, and refused to let him serve God. Ouch.  

It is our job to prove Rambam wrong. To say, we can look past immediate physical differences and not get distracted by them. It is our duty to see the value that someone like Moses brings to our community, without judging him based on his stutter.

Shabbat Shalom.

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