This week’s Haftorah comes from Sefer Yechezkel (Ezekiel 44:15-31) and talks about the different laws associated with how the Kohanim (priests) should conduct themselves. Yechezkel tells us (44:17) “The priests shall wear linen garments, NOT wool, when they come into the inner court.” In addition, we are told (44:20-25) “They shall not shave the hair of their heads nor should they let it grow wildly. They may not drink wine. They may not marry a widow or a divorced woman. They may not come into contact with a dead body, except to close family members.” As to why this is so, Hashem says (44:28) “I am their inheritance”–i.e. because of their close relationship with Hashem.
A connection to this week’s parsha could not be any simpler as Parshat Emor discusses a number of the topics found in the Haftorah. One such topic is the law regarding who a Kohain (not Kohain Gadol–High Priest) is allowed to bury. Those people include the seven closest family members, namely (21:2-3) “His wife, mother, father, son, daughter, brother and unmarried sister.” (According to Rashi, the wife is hinted to with the words “those closest to him”.) A second topic discussed in Parshat Emor is (21:14) the laws regarding what type of woman a Kohain cannot marry. And a third topic is the laws of blemishes that disqualify a Kohain from doing the service. Examples of such blemishes include being (21:18) “Blind, deaf, mute, lame, etc.” We are then told (21:21) “Any man within whom is a blemish from the children of Aaron will not offer the offerings of Hashem, whoever has a blemish in him cannot offer those sacrifices from which Kohanim can eat.”
Many people are surprised (even upset) at the fact that the Torah seems to be so caught up with how a Kohain looks. “After all,” they say “isn’t the focus of the service in the Beit Hamikdash supposed to be about spirituality, not physicality?!” One could even protest the seeming injustice of disqualifying a Kohain simply because he has a blemish. After all, is it HIS fault if he is born blind or deaf? It is especially disconcerting when it comes to what seem like insignificant blemishes, like having one eye bigger than the other. Why would the Torah hold THAT against a Kohain?
Rambam (Maimonides) addresses this question in his monumental work “Moreh Nevuchim–The Guide to the Perplexed”, (section 3, chapter 45). There he says that not only is a Kohain with a blemish disqualified, but even those Kohanim who are UGLY cannot do the service. As to why this is so, Rambam says “Because only someone who is whole with regard to his limbs and who is handsome, will be accepted/honored by the masses.” It’s quite astounding when you think about it. The Torah, which knows human nature SO WELL (after all, it was written by the Being who is the EXPERT in human nature) makes laws for the Kohanim FOR THE PURPOSE of having them be accepted by the people. Instead of Hashem simply telling us “Here are your priests, whether you like them or not”, He goes to great lengths to make them aesthetically pleasing so that we will accept them more readily.
But some people might have a more negative reaction to this and say “How can the Torah condone such prejudice?” Perhaps that question requires a slight adjustment in perspective. The fact that the Torah does something because it knows how it will be accepted by human beings, does NOT mean the Torah condones it. If we get upset at the fact that a deaf or blind Kohain is disqualified we should remember that it is because “the masses” won’t accept him and we should take this as a lesson to change how we feel about less-than-beautiful people. After all, if it WASN”T human nature to be more accepting of someone who is beautiful and physically wholesome, the Torah would not have such laws. Thus it is WE who must work on being more accepting of people who are less than “physically perfect”.
Kli Yakar takes this a stage further. He notes a subtle difference in the verse quoted above (21:21). At first it says “He WITHIN WHOM is a blemish” and then it says “He who has a blemish IN HIM.” Kli Yakar notes that the verse is hinting to two different kinds of blemishes. He says that a physical blemish can sometimes reflect a blemish in the person’s soul which is manifested in the actions of that person. According to Kli Yakar, the early Torah scholars were experts in being able to determine a blemish that would later come upon a person, just from seeing certain characteristics of that person. For example, if the experts saw a tendency in the person to take a bribe, they could predict that the person would become blind (perhaps from the verse in the Torah which says–Exodus, 23:8–“A bribe blinds the eye of wise people.”) If they saw ego in a person, they could predict a problem in his legs. Interestingly, some areas of modern medicine make a similar claim, insisting that many external ailments/deformities can be traced to something more internal–i.e. the person’s emotions. The difference between Science and Torah is that Science says it has to do with enzymes whereas the Torah says it has to do with something deeper–namely, the soul. This type of blemish is hinted to with the words “WITHIN HIM, a blemish”. In other words, the person’s existence precedes the blemish, because the blemish comes AFTER the person did something to cause it.
According to Kli Yakar, the second type of blemish is not a result of a person’s actions, rather it is a blemish with which he was born. This is referred to with the phrase “A blemish IN HIM”. In other words, the blemish preceded this person’s existence, so it was not a result of something the person did. Kli Yakar does not address the idea that this blemish might have come from a PREVIOUS existence of that person (i.e. a former life.) Or perhaps the reason why this person has a blemish has to do with the theory of Jewish philosophy which says that a person is given ONLY that which he needs to fulfill his mission in life. For some people, being physically whole is not NECESSARY for them to accomplish what Hashem wants of them in this world. There is even another idea in Jewish Philosophy that a blemish in one person may be a TEST for others rather than the person himself, which brings us back to what we said earlier regarding working on ourselves not to favor or reject people based on their looks.
Along those lines, there was once a man who had an incredibly beautiful daughter. She was so beautiful that when it came time to marry her off, the father decided that he could afford to hold out for a great Torah scholar to be her husband. He heard about an eligible man who was considered to be EXTREMELY knowledgeable and well versed in all areas of Torah. The father agreed to allow this man to see his daughter. When the man came to their home and the daughter opened the door, she was greeted with the sight of a man who had the largest hunchback she had ever seen–its size literally made him double over. Not to be rude, she led him into the salon and made conversation with him with her father at her side. After a while, the father excused himself and his daughter and they went into another room to evaluate the situation. The daughter told her father that although she appreciated many of the man’s qualities, there was NO WAY she could marry him with his deformity. The father went back inside and told the man that it would not work out, based on what the girl said. The man said “I respect her decision, but ask her if I may speak to her privately for a moment.” The father relayed the message to his daughter and she agreed. After being alone with the man in the salon for a short time she came running out and said “Father, we are getting married.”
Years later when the father was nearing death, he called to his daughter and said to her “I have always wanted to ask you something. What was it in the end that made you decide to marry your husband?” Whereupon the daughter said “When we were alone, he took me over to the mirror in the salon and made me look into it. As I did, he said “The Rabbis say (Gemarra, Nidah 2a) that forty days before a person is born, his soul mate is called out. When we were in Heaven, you and I were called out as soul mates. But there was one difference. At that time, it was YOU who were destined to be the one with this HUGE hunchback and it was I who was supposed to be extremely handsome. But when I saw how difficult it would be for you to have this, I begged Heaven to allow ME to have the hunchback and to give you the beauty instead. Will you now refuse to marry me because I did that?”
We don’t know why people are given the things they are given in this life, why one person is beautiful and another is less so. But more important than the question of “Why is it so?” is the question: “Does it really matter?”