Emor: What Do We See When We Look?

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

Shalom from the North Shore!

Our Torah portion this week, Emor, begins with rules for the
Kohanim, or priests: they must not become ritually impure, they
have special rules for marriage and family, and must be
physically whole and unimpaired. The portion also reviews the
Jewish holy days, followed by the story of a man executed for
blasphemy. The portion concludes with laws emphasizing
fairness and proportionality in criminal law.

One of the overall themes of Emor is the fitness of the priests for
their service in the Mishkan [portable Sanctuary.] The priests
were not to be ritually impure (from contact with a dead body, for
example) and could not make the holy offerings if they had a
physical blemish, such as missing or crushed limbs or certain
kinds of bodily disfigurements. Such priests could still
participate in eating that part of the sacrifice which was
designated as their portion (since the Kohanim didn’t work at
other occupations, they were sustained by a portion of the
offerings in the Mishkan), but could not make the offerings
themselves. (Cf. Vayikra/ Leviticus 21:16-24).

Now, at first glance, this seems totally unfair, even cruel- why
should someone missing a hand (for example), be excluded
from their life’s work of sacred service? Isn’t sacred service more
a matter of purity of heart than outward appearance- or, at least,
shouldn’t it be? Or, to put it another way, if God knows the
goodness of somebody’s heart, why does it matter if their body is
“imperfect” according to human standards?

One common understanding of these laws is that a Kohen with
a physical blemish is disqualified not because they are
“blemished” in the sight of God, but because the people
participating in the worship would get distracted by the physical
features of the priest and would focus on that rather than
directing their hearts towards Heaven. Seen this way, these laws
are still unfair to the disfigured Kohen, but the unfairness is that
of human beings, who are all too ready to focus on the
blemishes of other people. I

think this is especially true when someone- a religious leader, a
teacher, a community activist- is trying to get people to think
about their problems and what they must do to change things for
the better. It’s always easier to focus on the “blemishes” of the
messenger than the content of the message!

The Torah knows the hearts of humankind: most of us would too
easily notice the problems of others and too easily ignore our
own. Furthermore, I believe that these difficult laws- excluding
the disfigured Kohen from service- need to be seen in a greater
context, which is the Torah’s insistence that every single human
being is made in the image of God. Our challenge, then, is to live
up to that greater ideal, which sees the potential for spiritual
wholeness in all people, and which challenges us to not get
distracted by the wrong things.

Shabbat Shalom,


The full text of this week’s Torah portion can be found here:


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