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EMOR: The Disqualified Kohen

EMOR: The Disqualified Kohen

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Joel Cohen’s Question:

We consider ourselves a spiritual people, a people who look out for the downtrodden among us, a people who are obliged to judge each other by their character—not by wealth or physical prowess. Still, when it comes to the kohen (priest) serving in the Temple, the Bible clearly looks down and disqualifies the unfortunate.

What is this about? Well, the Parshah (Leviticus 21:16–22) quotes G‑d’s specific instruction to Moses that a descendant of Aaron who is blemished, blind, lame, having a nose with no bridge, having one limb longer than the other, with a broken leg or arm, with abnormally long eyebrows, with a membrane on his eye, a blemished eye, a dry skin eruption, moist skin eruption or crushed testicles “shall not come near to offer the food of his G‑d.” Nor may he eat from the offering as might a non-disqualified kohen. For, if he were to do so, he would “desecrate My sacred offerings . . .”

So, here we have G‑d Himself telling us that those unfortunate individuals among us, as enumerated above, who have done nothing sinful leading to or causing the infirmities, are disqualified from service in the Temple. Given this challenging biblical instruction by G‑d, how does G‑d expect us, the rank and file among His followers, to treat the downtrodden or the deformed better than He is willing to? Aren’t we supposed to try to emulate His ways?

Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:

Joel, your question this week is a troubling and difficult one. It is also a question for which most of the medieval explanations will not satisfy our 21st-century sensitivities. The classic explanation teaches that the kohen represents the people to G‑d. However, he also represents G‑d to the people. In this second role, it is vital that he be “perfect,” without spiritual or physical imperfections. This explanation resonates with a world that considered physical deformities as blemishes, and felt that such people could not assume positions of leadership.

Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:

Thank G‑d for the Zohar!

To be honest, this question has bothered me ever since the first time I was taught this section in elementary school. Days before learning this Parshah, one of the children had made a snide comment about handicapped people, and landed our class a lengthy lecture on respecting the true value of a human being and recognizing that people with handicaps actually possess souls of a higher nature than the rest of us… And then, the following week, we learned that these “holiest” people were “unfit” to serve in the Temple.

This week I discovered in the Zohar—a text written many centuries before sensitivity towards the disabled became, thankfully, the norm—that my teacher was correct. It is indeed true that the disabled have greater merit than the rest of us; and for precisely this reason they cannot work in the Temple. However, Joel, contrary to what you wrote, they may eat from the sacrifices: “His G‑d’s food, from the most holy and from the holy ones, he may eat” (Lev. 21:22).

In the words of that classic Kabbalistic text (Zohar, Vayeishev 181a):

Rabbi Shimon opened with the verse: “However, he shall not go in to the veil, nor come near to the altar, because he has a blemish . . .” (Lev. 21:23).

. . . When the moon is rendered defective by the same aspect of the evil serpent, all the souls that are issued at that time, although they were all pure and sacred, are flawed. Since they emerged at a defective time, their bodies are crushed, and the souls suffer pains and afflictions wherever they reach. The Holy One, blessed be He, cares for and loves those who are broken, although their souls are sad instead of joyous.

. . . These righteous are the constant companions of the moon, and have the identical defects . . . And “G‑d is near to those who are of a broken heart” (Psalms 34:19)—that is, to those who suffer from the same defect as the moon, those who are always near her. “And He saves such as are of a contrite spirit” (ibid.), by giving them a portion of the life . . . because they who suffered with her shall also be renewed with her.

. . . Those defects from which the righteous suffer are called “sufferings of love,” because they are caused by love, and not by the man himself . . . Happy is their portion in this world and in the world to come . . .

The third Lubavitcher Rebbe explains this passage of the Zohar in Derech Mitzvotecha, his tract on the inner meanings of the mitzvot. The following is my humble understanding of his dissertation:

G‑d created the world following a very complex plan. He wanted a world where there would be opposition to Him, and that we should overcome this opposition and reveal the truth—that G‑d is all, and all is G‑d.

Ambushing is a classic battle tactic: allow the enemy small advances, and even victories, only so that they eventually fall into your hands, completely vanquished. There is a price to pay for this, but within the pain of these losses lies the potential for the ultimate victory.

In order to allow for ultimate victory, G‑d created a situation where the opposition—which He Himself created—can make small advances, and even expropriate some divine energy. When the enemy lets down its guard, as it were, they are vulnerable and can be vanquished.

The moon represents this very idea: each month suffering losses, steadily waning, until it is reborn at the beginning of the following cycle.

Our souls, each a part of G‑d above, are born within the war room where G‑d’s strategic plan was devised and is being monitored. Some souls are born when the figurative “moon” shines bright, and some are born within the “ambush strategy.” The latter group is born disabled and challenged, going through the world bearing the burden and pain that the G‑dly energy that they mirror suffers too.

But we all know that the moon doesn’t actually shrink or vanish; it only compromises some of its external expression—the light that it emits to benefit us here on planet Earth. Similarly, the “opposition” doesn’t affect, or receive from, the essence of the G‑dly energy—it can only take its spoils from G‑d’s external manifestations.

The same is true with handicapped individuals: though the external elements of their souls are inhibited and temporarily held captive by the “opposition,” internally they are whole, like the moon in the latter half of the cycle. They suffer with G‑d, but they will have a greater part in His ultimate victory, for they too bear His wound.

G‑d is present in the entire world, but in the Holy Temple His glory is open and manifest. Since the souls within handicapped bodies are avatars of G‑d’s hiddenness, of the temporary victories that the enemy achieves in their attempt to obscure the divine reality, their service in the Temple would be inappropriate.

But the meat of the sacrifices carries holiness that is not revealed. Therefore: “His G‑d’s food from the most holy and from the holy ones, he may eat.”


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MICHAEL WILKS Salford May 9, 2017

Reference to "Derech Mitzvotecha" please I would very much like to see the passage in Derech Mitzvotecha for myself. Could you please provide a reference? I see the sefer is available at Hebrewbooks.org. Reply

Y. Bogomilsky New York February 22, 2016

It's not that complicated! The question here is more than "Why are people with imperfections excluded?". The question is, why in the Bais Hamikdash, The holy temple, a place of heightened spirituality, is there so much materialistic gold, silver and marble?
The answer is, these things are not there because G-d cant be without them. Rather, they are there to help materialistic men develop awe for G-d.
Would we respect the Holy Temple if it was built from scrap wood and cardboard boxes?
Of course not!
Similarly, G-d does not need only "perfect" people. Rather, for us to have proper respect, we need to see only "perfect" people.
To put this in perspective: In America we are extremely sensitive to handicap people. However, what would we think of our president if his aids were all restricted to wheelchairs?
(see commentary Ohr Hachaim to verses discussing people with blemishes) Reply

Anonymous USA September 13, 2015

What my left-handed rabbi said is that a priest that is left handed or who has a blemish causes the person who brought the sacrifice to be distracted while the priest is doing the sacrifice. If you bring a sin offering to the Temple, you have to be focused on the sacrifice, not on the priest's blemish or the fact that he's slaughtering the animal left handed. The priests who fit into this category wouldn't do sacrifices, but they would still study Torah and perform other tasks in the Temple. Reply

Anonymous Olam Haza May 31, 2015

Because that's show business Simple as that. The Cohen was a priest, a healer, whose power to a great extent depended upon the people's perception. Another way to put it is perfect priests allow for a better Hawthorne effect. Reply

yochannan November 15, 2014

Moses, he was imperfect, speech impediment, a man we all respect, and he was closest to G-d.

the above article is excellent. Reply

Anonymous New York June 10, 2014

Pain/Harm/Evil vs. Pleasure/Benefit/Good Isn't the explanation of disability being more of a challenge to living life without loss of faith and love of G-d similar to the eternal question of how can a Good G-d create or allow Evil? that is, to distinguish good from evil, there must be something to contrast with good? To my mind, such is really an inadequate explanation; but "balance" such as the negative and positive ends of an electric or energy field in terms of scientific reality may hold the ultimate basic understanding of how this world of G-d's creation works. Please enlighten us readers with further rabbinic, sage and scholarly comments. Such comments are most reassuring and helpful. Reply

Anonymous April 28, 2014

The disqualified Kohen This section of the Torah is still troubling to me, but looking at it from a more positive perspective it can also be said that they were already aware of the disabled and their challenges , and while not allowing them to be Kohens, they were not banished from the community either, which was probably quite advanced considering the time they lived in. Some societies (outside of Judaism) sometimes left the disabled in the wilderness to perish (by age 3), or even executed those who were mentally disabled.
I think Judaism has always tried to protect the dignity of the individual and the community by making specific provisions for those who are less fortunate and mitzvot that are meant to help and protect them. It does not forget the sanctity of life, the holiness at the core of a person's soul. Reply

Anonymous mesa May 12, 2012

Disqalified Kohen And The Skeptic When I was little my mom used to say that I was a "slow lerner." My love was the science, art, and music. She would say that an artist would go no where. But those ideals were mine. I grew up very unhappy, abused, neglected. But was always seeking for the True G-d. What I was taught was not Torah. It was something very contrary. After 59 years of my life I find the truth. Now I am dedicating the rest of my life to the things Hashem placed in my heart. I understand that there is no explanation for the suffering. But one thing I know for sure is that we have a Grandious G-d. When Hashem, blessed be He, created the human being, it was for the good. And as all other creations, spiritual and physical. It was for the good. Some turned against him and brought all these unfortunate events. But His promise to those who seek him with a sincere heart is a good one. He is faithful. A loving Father. I believe and trust him and wait for His promised. To others is a choice to make. Love him or hate? Reply

M. Gordon Melbourne, Australia May 12, 2012

A Temporary Blemish-Spiritual Perfection In an encouraging letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe to someone who was taking a position to run a facility for intellectually challenged children, he advised the man to consider his charges as suffering from a temporary illness, which I understand to mean not to see just a handicap rather see the person beneath it. In The Seven Beggars of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov he indicates that a physical defect can denote spiritual perfection in that limb. (Since he has completed the spiritual service of that limb/faculty, it is no longer needed.) Reply

Anonymous Baltimore, Maryland May 11, 2012

Sorry - this does not explain a thing - it just seems like convoluted justification. Wouldn't it be simpler to say we don't always understand the ways of G-d, rather than to ascribe battle plans and other reasons that seem to make more sense to men than women? G-d did not have to make a sick child, He really didn't. No one deserves to be shunned - He could have made the people greater in understanding and heart, rather than push anyone aside. This does not convince. Reply

Anonymous mesa May 9, 2012

The Disqualified Kohen I always thought that what Torah is talking about is the spiritual handicaps. If one think about it each part of our limbs has a meaning purpose. And as for those handicaps in the physical think about it. A person doing all the work of a Kohen in a wheel chair, missing his nouse, etc., etc. Could they perform? Now, being the perfect looking, Adonis, is not the ideal. I suppose it could only be a normal, easy going, loving G-d, peace, person, like Moshe? For example? It is a wonder how we all interpret everything, isn't it? Mind is a very complicated thing... Blessings to all the same. Reply

Marius San Diego, CA May 11, 2010

Re:Re: Shopping for Answers I didn't know about the 4 levels of understanding the Torah. But it makes sense to have them if we consider the fact that since the beginning of time 10% of the population controlled 90% of the wealth. If there were only one level and 10% vacancy for Cohen positions, a lot of people would be upset. So along came the Sod to help with the "filtering".
I don't think that only a select few have the discipline, mental capacity and IQ to comprehend the Sod. In my opinion, it is more likely a case of keeping power and property in the hands of the few. Reply

Chana Moriah Long Beach area, California May 7, 2010

Thank you Rabbi Freeman Thank you Rabbi Freeman for explaining how G-d suffers with us.

Could you tell me what the "greater part in His ultimate victory is?"

Is the ultimate victory learning to live with the suffering and still making something positive with one's life?

Shabbat Shalom, Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman for chabad.org May 5, 2010

Re: I don't understand one part Think of a parent whose child is suffering a stomach ache. Often, the parent suffers more than the child--and physically so. The child may have eaten something, or be suffering from a virus. The parent is suffering only from sympathy.

The sages say that this is why G-d appeared to Moses from within a fiery bush, as to say, "I am with you in your suffering." Yet, just as the bush was afire yet not burning, so G-d suffers with us although He is not truly afflicted.

I think you will find many more articles that will help you overcome pain if you look at our collection on the topic, here. Reply

Chaim Hadley, MA May 3, 2010

Re: Shopping for Answers I don't think it is so much as "Shopping for Answers" as it is going through in greater depth. Since the Torah can be understood on four levels (Pshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod), there exists a level where everything is the simple meaning.that a young child can understand. Reply

Inge Reisinger May 3, 2010

Thank you a very good article. and to the last person, Chana Moriya, I can feel with you and your pain in the soul. you must know that G-d sees all that and feels with you, because he wants people who are happy with his creation of the world even if you have pain, pain caused by people who cannot imagine your pain in the soul. but he gave you something that only you are able to do, to give somebody else happiness - this is for G-d the greatest gift because you created a smile on other faces. All the best to you and a smile in your heart I wish you from my heart. Reply

Chana Moriya bat Sarah Long Beach area, CA May 3, 2010

I don't understand one part........... The 3rd from the last paragraph confuses me..."The same is true of handicapped individuals.......... They suffer with G-d, but they will have a greater part with His ultimate victory for they too bear HIS wound.."

If someone could be so kind to help me understand how G-d has a wound when we are disabled (I am). What is the greater part with His ultimate victory?

I was hoping something would help me with an almost life long stint with pain and suffering...... Reply

Marius San Diego, CA/US April 10, 2010

Shopping for answers First I must acknowledge the wonderfully crafted replies.
Still, a skeptic myself, I wonder if maybe all the Talmud, the Zohar and famous Mekubalim's interpretations of the Torah do not boil down to shopping for answers we do not have and will never have?
It is no secret that the Torah is full of inconsistencies and eyebrow-raising facts and situations. Could it be that in this case the simple, Darwinistic argument is the correct one? That flawless, good looking Cohanim are simply better for business like a company’s CEO would be if he/she weren't tied to a wheelchair? That a flawless-looking leader is good not only for attracting Jews to shul but also a good PR tool for Judaism as a whole, being surrounded by hostile polytheists? Why must we always shop for answers when the biblical event/fact is too dark for us to handle and/or judge by the same criteria we interpret the universally-accepted ten commandments and other Ethical laws which made the Hebrew's Torah stand out? Reply

Anonymous branchporrt, ny/us August 30, 2009

thank you. i've havie worked as a social worker and an advocate. this is beautiful and answers questions. it should be wildly published. Reply

Yiska Dolamore CH CH , NZ May 8, 2009

Knowledge heals a mother. Having disabled child shows you that inside them is a beautiful fountain of love and truth, pure to their soul. Your words explain a long pined for answer. thank you. Reply

Each week, Joel Cohen poses questions on the weekly Parshah (Torah reading). These questions are addressed by Rabbis Adam Mintz and Eli Popack.

About the Participants:
Joel Cohen, a former federal and state prosecutor, practices criminal defense law at a prominent NYC law firm, and is an Adjunct Professor of Professional Responsibility at Fordham Law School. He also authors a column at the New York Law Journal.

Rabbi Adam Mintz has served as a pulpit rabbi for over twenty years. He is an adjunct professor in Jewish History at Queens College, and lectures widely on a variety of topics. His weekly streaming video, “This Week in Jewish History,” is featured at rayimahuvim.org. Rabbi Mintz has recently published Jewish Spirituality and Divine Law (Ktav, 2005).

Rabbi Eli Popack grew up in South Africa, and is the founder and president of Map International, a socially responsible business engaged in Electronic Financial Infrastructure in Africa. In the summer he serves as spiritual guide to the Beach Minyan in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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