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Parashat Emor 5777: Torah and disability

For many years, we have been discussed as a society how to deal with people with disabilities: mental illness, blindness, deaf people, mute people and many other conditions. For generations, most people have treated this people with arrogance, were abandoned and accused of being guilty for their own condition, were not considered whole human beings. People with mental illness were sent to institutions, mostly to keep them away from us, so we don’t have to deal with them; than in order to help them heal. Only recently there are genuine efforts to communicate and help them develop good lives. The Torah also speaks about disability with a complex balance between values, priorities and perceptions. On one side, many important characters in the Tanach had some kind of disability: Jacob was limping, Moses was hard of speech, Miriam got leprosy, Isaac was blind, King Saul had a severe depression. These and others in the Bible and in Talmudic literature were able to overcome their disability and succeed in leading the People of Israel. And still, it would seem that the Torah prefers wholeness. We read in our Parashah: “Hashem said to Moshe: Tell Aaron, ‘None of your descendants who has a defect may approach to offer the bread of his God. No one with a defect may approach — no one blind, lame, with a mutilated face or a limb too long, a broken foot or a broken arm, a hunched back, stunted growth, a cataract in his eye, festering or running sores, or damaged testicles, no one descended from Aaron the Cohen who has such a defect may approach to present the offerings for God made by fire; he has a defect and is not to approach to offer the bread of his God. He may eat the bread of his God, both the especially holy and the holy; only he is not to go in to the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a defect — so that he will not profane my holy places, because I am Hashem, who makes them holy.’” It is clear that these verses and others gave justification for the discrimination against people with disabilities. Indeed, even in rabbinical Law there are roles and rights denied to people with disabilities. Maybe these restrictions were logical in the past when these people didn’t have access to any education, but today the situation is different and we must be able to adapt ourselves to his new reality. There is, however, a different way to understand these verses. Many medieval commentators pointed out that the same defects that disqualify a Cohen to serve in the Sanctuary also disqualify an animal to be a sacrifice. On the other side, everyone, no matter age or health situation, was welcome to bring a sacrifice to the Sanctuary to worship God. In a way, both the Cohen and the sacrifice served not as representatives of values, but more as tools in the ritual of the Sanctuary. In the same way we wouldn’t use a broken hammer to build a house, the Torah is strict in the request that only Cohanim whose body can represent the average Israelite and therefore serve as tools to repair the relationship between God and the individuals of the People of Israel. It says in the Midrash that everything that God disqualified in an animal, He made appropriate in people. Disqualified blindness, and brokenness, and blisters in an animal, making appropriate in people a broken and depressed heart. In a sense we are all defective, we all try to balance weaknesses, vulnerabilities and blemishes. We try to balance with other things so we can live whole lives. Therefore, the Parashah reminds us that only tools, like hammers, must be without defects, only in tools a blemish disqualify it. For us, who make efforts to be ethical people, loving and good; our defects and blemishes are only a motivation to grow by dealing with them. Through them we become better people.

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