by Hazzan Ben Tisser
Parashat Emor deals with many issues related specifically to the Kohanim, the subset of the Levites charged with running the ritual affairs of the Mishkan (the portable Tabernacle), and ultimately the Beit HaMikdash(Holy Temple). Included in the opening are some well-known edicts, such as Kohanim not being allowed to come into close contact with a corpse except those of close relatives (hence why oftentimes a Kohen will stand just outside the cemetery or in the road at a funeral), and that Kohanim should marry a Bat Kohen (the daughter of another Kohen; and as well they may only marry a woman who has never been married).
But in the opening of our parashah there is a short section that is troubling in today’s understanding of the world. Leviticus 21:16-21 reads as follows:
16 The Lord spoke further to Moses: 17 Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. 18 No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; 19 no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; 20 or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. 21 No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God.
In short, just as no animal with a blemish may be offered as a sacrifice, God specifically disqualifies any man of the Kohanic line with any sort of disfiguration or other physical blemish from serving God in the highest capacity. While it’s clear that at that time and in that place there were reasons for this, it is hard for us to come to terms with this.
Thankfully, we live in a country, at a time, and in a society when physical differences do not automatically disqualify one from serving in a leadership capacity. We strive for the ideal of appreciating leaders for their values, their ideals and their ideas, and their actions. But this is just an ideal, and we certainly have a ways to go. We have not yet seen enough leaders in the highest positions representing the breadth and beauty of American society.
On a smaller level, we at Beth El must celebrate the work we do towards inclusion. Rabbi Schwab has, for several years, worked at the forefront of inclusion among the Jewish community in Chicago and in our beloved Congregation. He has worked with a talented and dedicated group of lay leaders to make sure that our physical spaces are accessible to all, that our educational programs are able to meet the needs of as many types of learners as possible, that children with different needs are able to celebrate becoming B’nai Mitzvah on our bimah, and that members of the LGBTQIA+ community feel embraced in the sacred halls of our synagogue.
As difficult as the Torah passage is, it doesn’t point out any one person. It speaks about a particular role at a particular time, and with a particular understanding of the world and of connection to God. And while this may guide a particular set of responsibilities, I would suggest that in broader terms we are all leaders. We allhave the capacity and the obligation to lead. And we all have the ability to do this at the highest levels of our own community. I marvel as I watch the work of friends, congregants, and colleagues during this period of lockdown. The creativity, innovation, artistry, and leadership displayed is just incredible!
There are always boundaries and barriers present – sometimes self-imposed, and sometimes external. But once we work through them–or, one the blemish heals–there is nothing stopping each and every one of us from being leaders. I am very proud to be a leader in a community of leaders, and I look forward to the work we will continue to do together, through this period and beyond.