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.”