Torah Portion: Emor
Book of Leviticus
May 20, 2016
The Book of Leviticus is often referred to as the Torat Kohanim/Priests Handbook. The priests who served in the ancient Temple were born into their role. That is, priests traced their lineage back to the first priest, Aaron brother of Moses. Even if one was born into a priestly family, there were further requirements to serve in the ancient Temple. Included in the list of requirements was “No [priest] throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified [to serve in the Temple].” (Lev. 21:16)
Among the disqualifying defects were blindness, lameness, one limb too short or too long, broken leg or arm, hunchback, dwarf, growth in one’s eye, boils or scars, and so on! The priest was expected to be an exemplar of God’s perfection, both physically and spiritually. One who came to the Temple should be uplifted, and not put off, by the appearance of the priest. That was then. How things have changed!
The Eitz Hayim Humash notes, “Today we might well consider the religious institution that is willing to admit its own imperfections and is willing to engage physically disabled spiritual leaders as being better able to welcome worshipers who are painfully aware of their own physical and emotional imperfections.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first U.S. president elected with a physical disability. At age 39, he was diagnosed with polio. Despite permanent paralysis from his waist down, Roosevelt felt it important to convince people that he was in fact getting better, which he believed was essential if he was to run for public office. In private he used a wheelchair, but only to go from one place to another. He was careful never to be seen in it in public, although he sometimes appeared on crutches. He usually appeared in public standing upright, while being supported on one side by an aide or one of his sons. He felt the presidency required he give the appearance of strength during the darkness of World War II. That was then. How things have changed!
Today we know that a disability need not be a handicap. There are leg amputees who compete in track & field and skiing. There are wheel-chair bound who compete in marathons. There are deaf and blind rabbis who ably serve Jewish communities. There are great scholars and academics who in spite of physical shortcomings continue to make a difference in this world. And, there is Robert Hensel, a disabled activist who teaches, “I chose not to place “DIS”, in my ability!”
Rabbi Howard Siegel