In the third section of Parshat Emor, we read about physical defects. From a halachic standpoint, the laws of defects apply both to the korbanot and the people who bring them; both the korban and the Priest must be free of physical defect, according to the principle that “any defect that disqualifies a man disqualifies an animal as well.”1

But there is another law of this kind that adds substance to our topic, and that is that judges, at least in the Sanhedrin, must be free of physical defects: “Just as the court must be clean in respect of righteousness, so must they be clear of all physical defects.”2 A person with a physical defect can be one of the greatest sages of Israel, but to be a judge he cannot have a defect.

This law applies not only to a defect that would interfere with one’s ability to function as a judge, but also to a defect that would not necessarily interfere with his work. A hunchback, even if he is one of the greatest sages of Israel, and however erudite he may be, cannot be a judge.

The term mufla appears in several talmudic sources in the context of the court system,3 but the meaning of the term is unclear. Margaliyot HaYam4 proposes that it refers to a great sage who, for a technical reason, cannot be a member of the court. For example, upon reaching a certain age, one is disqualified from being a member of the Sanhedrin that rules in capital cases. Also excluded is someone who is childless. Such a person could be the generation’s leading Torah scholar, but he cannot be a member of the Sanhedrin. According to this interpretation, all sorts of people acted as adjuncts to the Sanhedrin, people who for technical reasons could not be members.

In the case of the Temple, at least, there is logic in the law that a korban must be without defect, and the same logic would explain why the Priest, too, must be without defect. This is the idea of “Try presenting [a defective animal as an offering] to your governor. Will he be pleased with you or show you favor?”5 Many other factors can disqualify a korban, beyond those featured on the list of actual defects. For example, an old or foul-smelling animal is disqualified from being a korban, even though it may have no physical defect. Clearly, the reason for this is that it is not proper to present such a thing to G‑d. Since bringing a korban has an aspect of ceremony – “For I am a great King, says the G‑d of Hosts, and My Name is feared among the nations”6 – clearly it is an affront to the King if He is brought a defective korban. So, too, the King’s servants must be pleasant in appearance, because if they are not, it is a defect in the King’s honor.

In the Temple as well, there is an aspect of splendor. It is not a shtiebel where anyone can go in and act however he wants. It is a place that one enters with awe and reverence, which also includes external appearance. Hence, when a korban is brought, it must be free of any defect. The same goes for other features of the Temple; they must be the very best, because we are dealing here with the honor of G‑d Himself. Because of this, the Temple vessels were made of gold. Can’t G‑d use iron vessels? Rather, gold vessels are used because this is the place of G‑d’s kingship, and kingship goes together with splendor.

All the vessels used in the dwelling of the Divine Presence must be perfect. Hence, if the Altar has a defect – even as slight as a notch that disqualifies a slaughtering knife, a notch that only a fingernail can detect – the Altar is unfit for use.7 The Priest’s garments must be perfect as well, for the same reason.

To be sure, there is also the aspect of humility and lowliness in approaching G‑d, as we read, “A heartbroken and crushed, O L‑rd, You will not scorn,”8 but the Temple of the King is not the place for it. It could be that a wretched person is precious in the eyes of G‑d, but since externally he is full of defects, he may not enter the Temple and face the Divine Presence.

This explanation makes sense regarding the Temple, which is, in essence, the Sanctuary of the King, but why does the same rule apply to judges? Judges are generally esteemed for their wisdom, justness, and integrity – must they be pleasant in appearance as well?

A new mother once approached a certain rebbe in tears, holding her infant son who was born with crooked legs. The rebbe instructed her to relax, saying, “Don’t worry, he will have a straight head.” Indeed, the boy grew up to be a great rabbi, crooked legs and all.

The Shechina does not dwell in a defective place

We never know whether something that appears good is truly good. As it says, “Man sees what is visible, but G‑d sees into the heart.”9 The ability to see inwardly, into a person’s heart, belongs to G‑d alone.

Here, apparently, G‑d requires of those who do His will a level of completeness, and not only from a spiritual standpoint. We might think that spiritual perfection is all that is important in the service of G‑d, but it turns out that G‑d expects perfection in all areas from His servants. This does not mean that someone who is not perfect in every way is worthless in G‑d’s eyes. Rather, there are concentric circles of closeness to the Divine Presence, and in the innermost circle G‑d requires vessels that are whole, as it says in the Zohar, “The Shechina does not dwell in a defective place.”10

On a related note, what are the qualities required of a prophet? He must be “strong, wealthy, wise, and humble.”11 That he is wise and humble is not sufficient; he must also be strong and wealthy. Why should the two latter qualities make a difference? Let us say that a person is not strong; he is a small, withered creature. Does that interfere with his heart and soul, or with his ability to serve as a prophet?! Troubled with its implication, Maimonides reinterprets this talmudic statement, explaining that “wealthy” refers to one who rejoices in his portion and “strong” refers to one who overcomes his evil inclination.12 But this is obviously not the simple meaning of the talmudic text; it seems clear that the Talmud is actually talking about someone who is physically strong and wealthy in the monetary sense. Thus, the Talmud requires of a prophet – a vessel for receiving the Divine Presence – things that seem to be external qualities. He cannot receive the Divine Presence without these qualities because the “vessel” would then be incomplete.

The Talmud cites an interpretation that bears an incredible resemblance to a hasidic tale:

The court declared: “Today is Rosh HaShanah.” The Holy One, Blessed Be He, then told the ministering angels: “Set up a platform and let the advocates and accusers step up, for my children have announced that today is Rosh HaShanah.” The court then decided instead to put off [Rosh HaShanah] till the next day. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, then told the ministering angels: “Remove the platform and let the advocates and accusers go away, for my children have put off [the holiday] till tomorrow.” What is the source for this? “For it is a law for Israel, Judgment [Day] of the G‑d of Jacob:”13 If it is not law for Israel, then, as it were, it is not Judgment [Day] of the G‑d of Jacob.14

The point of this midrash is that the court’s power derives not only from the fact that the judges are Torah scholars but due to the fact that they become a kind of instrument for the Divine Presence. What they decide is an expression of G‑d’s will; it has an effect both above and below.

Because they have this power, judges are required to be worthy instruments. This clearly does not mean that the scholar who sits in court is a kind of prophet, but he must have some form of divine power in order to voice G‑d’s will in deciding Jewish law. A session of the court involves an aspect of the dwelling of G‑d’s presence, and therefore the court is also called elohim.15 For this reason, the ordination of Torah sages must be done specifically in the Land of Israel,16 and their full authority can be exercised only in the Stone Hall inside the Temple, and not when they leave it.

Inclination with creation

If we take all of these laws not just in their halachic context but also as the expression of G‑d’s true will, we may infer that He requires that those who approach Him be crowned in all forms of perfection.

In detailing the laws of blemished animals, the Torah says, “That which is crushed or mangled, torn or cut, you shall not offer to God, neither shall you do thus in your land.”17 There are people whose whole approach to religious life is to be crushed and mangled, torn and cut. These people feel that the more they are downtrodden and oppressed, the more exalted and holy they become, and the greater their ability becomes to draw close to G‑d. In the above verse, G‑d says that the opposite is true; not only should such an animal not be offered to G‑d, but “neither shall you do thus in your land.” G‑d does not want the crushed and mangled – neither inside nor outside.

We read in Psalms that “a heart broken and crushed, O L‑rd, You will not scorn.”18 What is the relation between the “crushed and mangled” – of which it says “you shall not do thus in your land” – and “a heart broken and crushed”?

A broken heart is a person’s self-evaluation, in relation to others and in relation to G‑d, and the result is the feeling that there is still much to accomplish. The opposite of a broken heart is what is called “obtuseness of the heart,” as in the verse, “You grew fat, thick, and gross”19 ; it is the feeling of self-satisfaction, that everything is okay in one’s life.

“Crushed and mangled” is someone who suppresses his drives – and along with them his ambition and creativity – which sometimes happens because of misplaced piety. Early Christian monks would often castrate themselves for this same reason – the desire to achieve holiness. Instead of struggling with one’s evil inclination – a protracted struggle that can continue for years, in which one can never be certain that he is truly rid of the inclination – one simply removes the inclination entirely. One would think that this should be considered an exemplary act; it is certainly good-intentioned behavior. To be sure, there are inclinations that cannot be so easily cut off. Jealousy and honor, for example, are traits that cannot be eliminated from a person’s consciousness. But if a safe, minor operation can solve the problem of sexual temptation forever, it would seem like the perfect solution to this problem.

Here, however, the verse teaches us not only that if a korban is bruised or crushed, it is then unfit to be brought before the King inside the Temple, but also that this approach should be taken in all areas of spiritual life.

Many baalei teshuvah face this very problem. They observe that since they have become observant, they have lost all of their creativity. When they were sinners, whether big or small, they were full of vitality and creativity. Afterward, when they accepted upon themselves the yoke of God’s kingship, they became truly “crushed and mangled, torn and cut,” with all the accompanying ramifications. They may have a much less powerful evil inclination, but they have rendered themselves impotent in terms of creating good in the world.

When a brilliant mathematician, artist, or writer decides to apply his mind to Torah study, we hope that he maintains his ability to produce wonderful things, as he did in the past. But if he adopts the religious attitude of being “crushed and mangled,” his brilliance amounts to nothing. He becomes a kind of insignificant, lowly creature who wanders through the alleyways. This is true not only of baalei teshuvah, but also of those who merely decide to fill their hearts with pure religious devotion. They often begin to act crushed and stooped, small and broken.

What happened to willpower, volition, and desire? These traits can serve as tools for the evil inclination, but they can also be tools for creativity.

In this verse, G‑d answers, as it were, the question of whether it is advisable for a person to remove his evil inclination if it means simultaneously removing his creativity. “That which is crushed or mangled, torn or cut, you shall not offer to G‑d, neither shall you do thus in your land.” This verse is also the source for the Torah’s prohibition on castration, another indication that it is better to live with one’s inclination rather than sacrifice one’s creativity, whether in the Temple or elsewhere.

If a non-Jew wants to remove his evil inclination, we do not discourage him from doing so; neither is castration prohibited for non-Jews.20 But for Jews, this is completely unacceptable. Similarly, a non-Jew’s personal korban is only disqualified if it bears a significant defect, but for a Jew, any defect renders the korban unfit.

The Talmud states, “‘Neither shall you do thus in your land’ – even to castrate a dog is forbidden.”21 Not only is it forbidden to castrate an exalted personality of Israel, but even a dog – an insignificant, lowly creature that wanders around eating carcasses in the street – may not be castrated, because the yoke of G‑d’s kingship does not mean being submissive, “crushed and mangled,” even for one’s animals.

One must constantly scrutinize where one is acting, where one is creating, and where one is living. In this parshah, G‑d pronounces that He wants only sound, healthy people to join Him in His house – the more whole and upright the better. Judges, too, must be free of both moral and physical defects. G‑d instructed Noah to take only healthy animals into the ark, and the same is true elsewhere as well. “Fortunate is the one You choose and bring near”22 ; G‑d wants those He chooses and brings near to be healthy and physically sound.

On the verse, “You are children of G‑d your L‑rd. Do not mutilate yourselves and do not make a bald patch in the middle of your head because of the dead,”23 Rashi explains: “For you are children of the Omnipresent, and you should therefore be comely and not mutilated with hair torn out.” G‑d says that He wants His children to be beautiful, not full of cuts and marks. But isn’t inner beauty more important to G‑d than external beauty?

The truth is that we do not know the true reckoning of what is dearest to G‑d. What we do know is that He wants people who are crowned in perfection, inside and out; and the finer this perfection is, the better.

The requirement of perfection

The requirement that the members of the Sanhedrin be well versed in all fields and disciplines is not connected to their professional work. The Talmud describes R. Yochanan b. Zakkai as the consummate man; there was nothing that he did not study: “Great matters and small matters – ‘great matters’ refers to Maaseh Merkavah24 ; ‘small matters’ refers to the discussions of Abaye and Rava, washermen’s tales and fox fables.”25 That he studied Maaseh Merkavah and the discussions of Abaye and Rava is understandable, but why was it praiseworthy that he studied washermen’s tales – the jokes and stories that washermen tell while they work – and fox fables? Because the definition of perfection is “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”26 Just as G‑d is crowned in all forms of perfection, He also wants those who do His will to be crowned in all forms of perfection.

The same requirements cannot be demanded of everyone; not everyone can be wise like Solomon, a prophet like Moses, or strong like Samson. But it is not too much to ask that everyone avoid being “crushed and mangled…blind, scabbed, or with scurvy.”27

An ox that has two broken legs and limps is a lot less dangerous than a big, healthy ox. As a result, it may seem that this limping ox is more of a tzaddik; he is physically unable to commit the same acts of violence of which his healthier counterpart is capable. It stands to reason, then, that we should go further: Let us remove both of his eyes and perform a few other operations on him, so that he cannot cause any damage whatsoever. Why should such a tzaddik of an ox not be brought as a korban? But this is twisted thinking: Is this ox really an appropriate gift for G‑d?

Here we see what G‑d wants and what He does not want. He wants things that are physically sound, with all the risks that this entails. An ox that has not been castrated is incomparably more dangerous and much more difficult to harness. But G‑d does not want the castrated tzaddik; He wants the ox that is closest to perfection in all ways. If such an ox is dangerous – even murderous, at times – G‑d is willing to take this risk.

Incidentally, this does not mean that halachah condones bringing as a korban an animal that has acted violently or otherwise inappropriately. An animal that had relations with a person, or that was worshiped, or that was condemned to be stoned, is unfit to be offered. If an ox actually used its power to commit some kind of offense, it is disqualified. But only an ox that is healthy enough to do such things in the first place can be brought as a korban, unlike the limping ox with the broken legs.

We read in Psalms: “Ascribe to G‑d, O children of the mighty, ascribe to G‑d glory and strength.”28 It is precisely the children of the mighty, the great and powerful people, the children of princes, who must ascribe glory to G‑d, because “the voice of G‑d comes in power, the voice of G‑d comes in majesty.”29 Majesty and power demand a vessel that is capable of receiving them; broken vessels cannot bear them. That is the meaning of the verse, “the mighty in strength who do His bidding, hearkening unto the sound of His words.”30

To be a korban and to be a Priest, one must be physically sound, along with the danger that this entails. For an animal to gore, to damage, or to have relations with a person is forbidden, but these despicable acts must be part of the whole range of possibilities. Only with the possibility of reaching what is truly evil can one fully achieve what is truly good.

The ramification, therefore, for the service of G‑d – how one should see himself – is this: When we walk “mournfully before G‑d,”31 when we live with excessive fear of heaven, we are essentially heaping defects upon ourselves. The Torah does not vilify such a person. If it is necessary to transport burdens upon him, he will hold up; if he is needed for slaughtering, he is still fit to be eaten. Here, however, whether the meat is kosher is not the issue; here the issue is holiness. For ordinary consumption, we are not required to procure only the choicest meat; neither is it necessary to find the perfect ox for work in the field. But when it comes to holiness, there is a different standard.

We do not have a Temple, we do not have the service of the Sanctuary, and we do not have a Sanhedrin. But we still have G‑d, and He remains the same: “I am G‑d – I have not changed.”32 He has not changed, and He still wants the same things.