Seeing Beauty Above and Below the Surface

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This week's Torah portion touches on the tricky subject of communal acceptance.

As the mother of an 8-year-old girl, I have watched my share of children’s movies. It seems that no matter which one we watch, one theme remains constant: You can tell if a person is good or bad based on how they look. If they are attractive, they are the good ones. If they have misshapen features and malformed bodies, they are the bad ones. 
 
Of course, it’s not just in the movies. Social scientists have found that people who are considered good looking are treated better, earn more money and are more likely to be thought of as intelligent. And, unfortunately, the opposite is true as well: People with physical disabilities are often wrongly believed to have intellectual and emotional limitations.
 
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, struggles with these same issues. In the midst of the description of the sacred rhythms of the community, we read that some priests, based on their physical appearance or disability, are forbidden from making offerings: “The Lord spoke further to Moses … No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God … no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed.” (Leviticus 21:17-18.) 
 
The exclusion of certain priests from the central function of the priesthood based on their physical disability runs contrary to other parts of our tradition. A central Jewish value is the belief that each person is created in the image of God, b’tzelem elohim, and must be treated with respect.
 
In Leviticus 19:14, the Torah specifically prohibits discrimination: “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.” In fact, many of our biblical heroes were disabled — Jacob walked with a limp, Moses stuttered and Leah had weak eyes — but their physical limitations did not prevent them from leading their people. Some would even argue that these qualities gave them greater empathy and wisdom as leaders.
 
Commentators throughout the ages have tried to resolve the bias in this week’s Torah reading. Some have proposed that the text can be read as a metaphor. For example, that it’s not referring to people who can’t see, but people who are blind to the truth. Maimonides took another approach when he explained that the Torah wasn’t discriminating against people with disabilities; rather, it was recognizing the discrimination that exists within people and adapting to that reality.
 
Sadly, no matter how creatively the text is interpreted, on a literal level it still says that some bodies are more acceptable than others and only people who look good have something to offer.
 
The challenge before us is: How do we build holy communities that value each person’s unique gifts when we live in a world that equates external beauty with intrinsic goodness? 
 
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his essay, “To Grow in Wisdom,” wrote about what gives life meaning: “It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being: God, a soul and a moment. And the three are always here. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.” May we be blessed to see the true beauty inherent in each being and may we live in a world that embraces the holiness of what each person has to offer.
 
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg is a community chaplain and co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.
 

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