What does perfection look like and where do we expect to find it?
It’s a hard question. Sometimes, it feels like perfection, like the Maimonidean description of God, is easier to define by what it is not, rather than what it is. Or maybe, in a slightly more modern description, perfection is rather impossible to define but we’ll know it when we see it.
This week, though, the Torah seems to disagree. Parashat Emor opens with a discussion of a priest and what makes him unfit for his sacred duty of bringing offerings to God. One would think that it should be his spiritual state that would disqualify him – impure thoughts, quick to anger and judgement of others, immoral or unethical behaviors. But to this the Torah disagrees, a priest is disqualified by external, rather than internal influences. Marriage to an improper woman disqualifies him. Cutting his hair disqualifies him. A promiscuous daughter disqualifies him. Physical “defects” like blindness, handicaps, disabilities, scarring, and genital abnormalities, disqualify him. If you were to ask the Torah about perfection and where to find it, the Torah would send you to look upon a priest in service to God – for he is perfect.
For me, this is a hard parasha to understand. Why should a person who cannot see, or a person who has difficulty walking, or a person who is connected to others who make unhealthy sexual choices be banned from service to God? Isn’t asking for perfection in our priests, clergy, and community leaders asking to be disappointed? Shouldn’t anyone, each in his or her own unique and personal manner, be eligible to serve God and act as a conduit between God and humanity? If we are all created in the image of God, shouldn’t these so-called imperfections be an integral part to our divine-human relationship?
My personal struggle and spiral of questions has led me to read this portion on a desperate search for a redeeming verse or commentary. It’s not easy to find, but if you’re looking for it, there might be two pieces of comfort.
The end of Leviticus 21, gives a quick reminder of what a physically defective priest is and is not allowed to do: “No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Eternal’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God. He may eat of the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy; but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect” (Lev. 21:21-23).
This priest, who cannot perform the responsibilities of his role, is forbidden to even enter the area of the Temple where the offering occurs. However, his status does not disqualify him from priesthood. He remains a descendant of Aaron, the first high priest. He continues to live amongst his fellow priests and family. And, he continues to receive even though he cannot give. It is all too easy to avert our eyes when “imperfect” people come into our community. It is all too easy to tell them that the things that are out of their control and the things that make us uncomfortable, not only restrict their participation but also restrict their mere presence. Not in this case, though. In the moments were community building feels “all too easy” we need to become aware of who’s missing, of who’s not there. We might find that an imperfect person’s past experience discourages them to try a new community that might be more accepting. We might find that we never allowed space for our friends and neighbors to show their imperfections. We might find that each of us carries our own imperfections, always feeling as if we are on the outside. In those moments, Torah reminds us to find whomever might be right outside of participating.
But more than that, the Torah’s description of an imperfect priest might be just the tool we need to open our doors and arms to those ostensibly on the outside of community. The priest, and others like him are described as “Ish asher bo moom” (Lev. 21:18), “a man who has a deformity.” Notice, he is not described as a “deformed man.” Rather, he is a man first, a person first, who carries upon him or within him something that makes him different and seemingly unable.
The priest – alone, outside, and visibly different – becomes an unavoidable reminder of humanity. Perhaps, he is disqualified from divine service because of this reminder. We want our relationships with God to be defined by the best of who we are, not the most honest of who we are. We want to see our own perfection when we see ourselves with God, not our own imperfect humanity when our conduit is tarnished or dented.
In my mind, neither our perfection nor God’s is found in the place where only perfect people are allowed. We don’t attain our loftiest goals when we remain in our sacred spaces, surrounded only by idealized beauty. That is not where anyone, priest or otherwise, can find or define perfection. No, perfection is found in recognizing the humanity in ourselves and others, before we see anything else. Perfection is found when we leave our ivory tower and rise to our responsibilities towards each other. Perfection is found when we realize that a perfect person is inherently imperfect and never lets their humanity surrender to their difference. Perfection is building our temples so that everyone has a place inside, and has share in our portion.