Parshas Emor deals extensively with the various physical ailments and defects which rendered a Cohen unfit for the central role he played in the Temple. The parsha lists many such physical defects, ranging from abnormally long eye-brows to having mismatched feet and hands, as disqualifying factors. It is hard to read these verses without being extremely troubled. Firstly, what has one’s physical state got to do with his ability to perform an essentially spiritual role as the representative of the Jewish people in the Temple? And further, the whole concept is morally unsettling; how can it be acceptable to discriminate against someone on account of his physical disabilities? This notion runs totally counter to the concept of a people committed to a lifestyle of G-dliness and moral self-perfection that Judaism claims to be? In short, the disqualification from the Temple service by virtue of physical deformities requires urgent explanation!
The depth of meaning and significance of the entire korbanos (offerings) process was entirely dependent on the presence of the appropriate mindset and intent of those involved in bringing these offerings. G-d doesn’t need our gifts and there were no magic results generated by empty and meaningless ritualistic offerings. It is clear that the Cohen, upon whom the whole process depended on, was not just a ‘ritual slaughterer’ or ‘Temple supervisor.’ His sincerity, devotion and spiritual sensitivity were a prerequisite for him to effectively function in his role as representative of the Jewish people. A non-fit Cohen, in a spiritual sense, could not possibly be allowed to fulfil his role in the Temple. What though does any of this have to do with the physical deformities that the Torah lists as bases for disqualification?
The Meshech Chochma[1] explains that being afflicted with such disqualifying deformities were G-d’s way of ensuring that those Cohanim lacking the appropriate moral and spiritual qualities were ‘removed from office.’ It would be almost impossible to fully evaluate the inner convictions of every Cohen and his consequent suitability as a spiritual leader of the Jewish people. By developing very external and visible marks it was easy to ensure that positions of communal leadership remained in the right hands. What rendered the Cohen unsuitable for a role in the Temple was nothing to do with his physical health, but the inner reality which his external physical state revealed[2].
There remains one major problem though with this attempted explanation; defects from birth were also a disqualifying factor. If these physical defects were an external manifestation of an inner moral lacking, defects from birth could not possibly count. This is because free will dictates that we are, morally and spiritually speaking, the result of our own life choices. If so, no defect from birth could indicate a disqualifying factor? The answer is – it is absolutely true that any physical defect from birth should not have disqualified any Cohen from performing his role as spiritual leader and representative of the Jewish people. Of course one’s physical defects ordinarily have no bearing on ones’ ability to carry out a spiritual role.
So why were such Cohanim disqualified? In order to avoid the public humiliation of those Cohanim who were genuinely inappropriate for such a lofty role, and whose ailments reflected this. That means that G-d’s concern for the humiliation of those lacking the necessary moral and spiritual qualities (which we may think was perfectly justified) was so great as to justify the re-ordering of the whole Temple structure, simply in order to avoid such embarrassment and humiliation. Only by extending the scope of the disqualifying factors to include those that theoretically should have been fit to serve in the Temple would such humiliation be avoided.
The Talmud explains[3] that even when one is obligated to rebuke someone he is obligated to avoid publicly humiliating him at all costs. Embarrassing someone is compared to ‘spilling their blood[4]’ and a number of halachic (legal) authorities take this comparison literally to the extent that one is obligated to give up their own life rather than humiliate someone[5]! If all of this is true even in a case where the humiliated party is seemingly deserving of his humiliation, how much more so when the person is an innocent bystander or friend who has done nothing to deserve such treatment?! Our responsibilities to our fellow man are not simply borne out of a need to build a well-functioning society that will allow us to live free of fear of being robbed or murdered at any moment. Visiting the sick, caring for the poor, treating the body of the dead with dignity etc. are all means by which we become more G-d-like[6] which is essentially our purpose in life.
This week’s parsha communicates an invaluable lesson about the ‘behaviour’ of G-d, and therefore the key to our own journey to self-perfection. Another person’s dignity and self-esteem are so crucial to his sense of self that to destroy it is, in some senses, paramount to murder. The lengths to which one should go to avoid such humiliation is indicated by G-d’s willingness to apply an ‘imperfect’ system to the operation of the Temple – the most spiritually charged point in on earth – simply in order to avoid the humiliation of those whose feelings we may have deemed insignificant under the circumstances.
[1] R’ Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) [3] TB Arachin 16b [4] TB Bava Metzia 58b [5] See Tosafos TB Sotah 10b, R’ Yona, Avos 3.15, and the Rema on Yoreh Deah 157.1 [6] See Sotah 14a that explains the requirement to be ‘like G-d’ refers to doing those actions which the Torah refers to G-d as having done such as visiting the sick etc.. All comments and feedback welcome – This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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