Love the imperfect

Over the last few weeks, we have been exploring the Holiness Code; those laws concerning the specific actions and behaviors that the Israelites are commanded to adopt in order to achieve a state of physical, moral and ethical purity. But before dissecting one particularly disturbing directive (at least to me), I’d like to share with you one of my favorite childhood stories, The Best Loved Doll by Rebecca Caudill. I promise, there is a connection to Emor.
The story centers around a little girl named Betsy who has just received an invitation to a party at her friend Susan’s house, which will take place later that afternoon. Why Susan chooses to throw such an impromptu gig at the last minute and assume that everyone will show up isn’t addressed, but personally, I find it a bit thoughtless. The invitation states that everyone must bring a doll to the party, and prizes will be given to the oldest doll, the best-dressed doll and the doll who can do the most things. And wouldn’t you know it, Betsy has one of each.
There’s Belinda, the fashion maven; Melissa, the oldest doll who once belonged to Betsy’s great-great-grandmother; and Mary Jane, who actually sews on a sewing machine. But Betsy’s choice is complicated by the existence of a fourth doll, poor Jennifer, who looks like the dog has used her for a chew toy. Her dress is faded and rumpled, her cheeks are bandaged, her hair is askew, her nose cracked and only one eye opens and closes. The other dolls tease her mercilessly and yet, she wears a permanent, heart-warming smile.
Jennifer is not only chosen to be taken to the party — she wins a special prize created just for her: a medal that says “Best Loved Doll.” And in the spirit of true generosity, she shares the rest of her party favors with her other snarky doll roommates. The moral of the story — that something doesn’t have to be perfect to be the most precious and valued — seems to stand in contrast with Parashat Emor.
Leviticus 21:16 begins, “The Lord spoke further to Moses…. 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; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; 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…. he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect.
“He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them.”
It seems not just unfair, but downright cruel, that only those lucky enough to be blessed with physical perfection were deemed qualified to serve in God’s holiest space. As if being physically disabled weren’t bad enough, this prohibition really seems to throw salt on the literal wound.
Rabbi Elliot Mayer draws on the Mishnah, which reframes this interpretation: “In the final G’ulah (redemption), the blind will be able to see, the lame will be able to walk and people will not suffer from physical disabilities. The Beit HaMikdash would have given every visitor inspiration and hope that there will be a time without physical suffering as prophesied by our Neviim (prophets). Therefore, a Kohen with a physical disability would detract from that vision.”
OK, so the disabled Kohen would not only detract the worshipper because of his bodily imperfections, he would also mar the worshipper’s vision of the perfect world yet to come? Talk about adding insult to injury.
Perhaps I’m being a bit too judgmental. After all, I’m looking at this through a modern lens. Back in the ancient world, this concept of “not judging a book by its cover” had yet to be embraced. So perhaps God, knowing how troubling and disappointing mankind’s behavior had been in the past, knew that changing the people’s perception of what true holiness looked like would take time. Indeed, Rabbi Alexander Kaye contends that the focus on external appearance gradually shifted, recalling a midrash from Sanhedrin 98a in which the messiah is depicted as a leper.
Perhaps the lesson that we can glean from this Parashah today isn’t so far off from that of The Best Loved Doll. It reminds us that we can choose to move beyond the physical. We can hold up as role models those who have struggled with disabilities, or adversity, as they have the most to teach us about what it really means to be whole. We can break down the barriers that keep us from understanding what it must be like to live with daily challenges by inviting those who do to be a part of our communities and synagogues, and making these places accessible and welcoming to every individual.
May we strive to see each and every soul B’Zelem Elokim (in God’s image) and appreciate the gifts that we all bring to our communal table.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor at Beth Shalom in Arlington.

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