Tidbits of Torah: On Torah and Inclusivity
Shabbat Parashat Emor
April 27, 2013 – 17 Iyyar 5773
Over the years, I have struggled with some of the “difficult” portions of Torah – portions that challenge my understanding of basic human equality, that raise up questions of morality, or that simply defy notions of logic and common sense. Yet, these same portions of Torah have often become a source of inspiration and of wisdom to me as I learned to revisit them year after year, continuing to delve into the mystery of their message and to immerse myself in commentaries that sought to illuminate these texts and shed light on their significance and relevance for each generation.
One of these “difficult” texts is in Parashat Emor. There, the Torah specifies various kinds of deformities, disabilities, and physical blemishes that would disqualify priests from functioning in their priestly capacity at the alter as the people of Israel brought sacrificial offerings to God.
Why would these people be disqualified from the priestly service? And how could I reconcile this text with the teaching that all human beings are created in the image of God?
Over the years, not only have I asked myself this question, but I have been asked this question by many others. As a result, I was spurred on to search for answers. But, until now, none of the responses sufficed.
One example of the unsatisfying responses I found is that just as one would not bring an obviously defective gift to a flesh and blood king, and would expect the ceremonial presentation of such a gift to be impressive, one would want the service of God in the Tabernacle to be no less impressive. Therefore, not only would the sacrificial offerings need to be unflawed, but also the priests who offered the sacrifices up to God would be expected to represent that kind of ceremonial perfection.
Another example is that in ancient times, deformities, disabilities and physical blemishes were understood to be the result of some spiritual lack either in the person who suffered from that condition or in that person’s ancestors. Therefore, it was not considered proper to have that person included in the priestly service which is to represent spiritual wholeness and holiness.
As none of the explanations that I found truly satisfied me, I continued to ponder this difficult text, searching for a message that would allow this text to resonate with meaning and relevance in my life.
This year, it occurred to me that this text holds a powerful message on Torah and inclusivity!
In describing the exclusionary policy at the center of the holiest service of God, this Torah text places before us a crystal clear reflection of what we are in fact doing in our society. It vividly describes a sad reality in our society.
The reality is that as a matter of course, we create frameworks – whether they are camps or programs, schools or synagogues, cultural centers or sports centers – that are adequately designed for those who seem to us to be physically, mentally, and emotionally unflawed, but less than adequately adapted for people with disabilities and challenges of various sorts. The reason that our frameworks may be inadequate is that often, when we do take such people into account, it is done as an afterthought.
We often fail to see that we are being exclusionary. In justification for what we do, we put forward explanations of practicality, and of fairness to greater numbers of people, that fall short of realizing that true holiness belongs to all human beings; that all of us are flawed in some way; that all of us are created in the image of God.
The Torah, in Parashat Emor, holds up a mirror before our eyes…
so that we shall see our reality more clearly;
so that we shall commit to greater inclusivity;
so that one day we will see a different picture when we hold up a mirror to our society – a picture in which all human beings have equal access to holiness and to wholeness.
Then, as a community, we may truly fulfill the vision of our Torah and we may truly become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6)”.
Rabbi Gilah Dror
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