May 8, 2015 admin

The wisdom of our imperfections

Whatever our feelings as more and more results come in through the dawn hours, we should be moved by the process of democracy. In almost all the centuries of dispersion our ancestors could only dream of having the right to participate in determining their rulers. The establishment of a fair, peaceful, open and equal process of electing governments which includes women and men, rich and poor, and citizens of all faiths and none, is one of the great achievements of humanity. May the leaders now elected govern with compassion, justice, wisdom, courage and deep respect for all life.
The Torah speaks in this week’s portion about inclusion in a different but no less important context. To be honest, it actually speaks about exclusion, but subsequent Jewish thought reframed its ideas. Moses is told to instruct Aron that any of his descendants, the Cohanim or priests, who ‘has a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatever man he is that has a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame man, or a man maimed in any part…’ (Leviticus 21: 17-18) The Torah does not offer any explicit rationale for this commandment, but probably, like the sacrificial animals themselves which had to be whole in body, the priests had to come as close as possible to the embodiment of physical perfection in their service of the one and perfect God.
When the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE and animal sacrifice ended, the priests lost almost all their functions; almost all, but not entirely all, because they retained the privilege of invoking God’s blessing on the people. To say before the congregation the beautiful words ‘May God bless you and keep you’ remains their prerogative to this day. But do the same restrictions still apply to a priest who has a blemish? The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish Law compiled by Joseph Caro in the 16th century, seems initially to rule that they do: ‘A Cohen who has a blemish on his face or hands…should not raise his hands in blessing because the people are looking at him’. However, it continues: ‘But if that Cohen is familiar in his city, and everyone knows him and that he has this disability, he should raise his hands [to bless the people] even if he is blind in both eyes’. ‘Familiar in his city’ is defined as having lived there for 30 days.
This reflects a certain reality, however discreditable that may feel. When a person has a disability, it’s hard for those who don’t yet know him or her to avoid seeing first the disability and only afterwards the person. I remember meeting someone in a wheelchair: ‘Please see me,’ he said, ‘not my chair’. But when we know a person, what we experience is that person as him- or herself, for whom she or he is.
Many people are, and feel, excluded from our community and society. It’s easy not to notice, because all too often they’re simply not there. They can’t physically get there. They feel not wanted. But it is profoundly important to be inclusive. This isn’t just for the sake of them (and who knows who’ll we’ll be if we get ill, when we get older). It’s for the sake of us all. The matter goes to the very heart of what we value, what we really care about as human beings and as society.
We live in a utilitarian age. Too often the value of a person is assessed according to their usefulness: ‘he does this’ ‘She does that’. When I’m ill or old I plunge in value; I’m not worth anything anymore. Such judgments are often not only around us, but also inside us; a sense of worthlessness is all too easily internalised.
Of course, what we do matters. We almost all want to be active, up-and-about. But what we do is not identical with what we contribute. What of wisdom, experience, kindness, creativity, the richness of different perspectives and ways of understanding life, the deeper kind of wholeness formed not because any single one of us is whole, but because every single one of us is there?
The Torah doesn’t say that God created some people in the divine image, the perfect people, totally fit in body and mind. It proclaims that everybody contains God’s image. It is even possible that God is often revealed more deeply precisely in the wisdom of our wounds and imperfections.

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