For any man in whom there is a blemish shall not approach: a man who is blind or lame or whose nose has no bridge, or who has one limb longer than the other; or in whom there will be a broken leg or a broken arm… (Artscroll translation of Vayikra 21:18-19)
Strangely, the Torah prohibits kohanim exhibiting certain physical defects from serving in the Beit haMikdash. Excluding a physically marred priest was not unusual for the ancient Near East (This Abled Body, pg. 26), but it seems inconsistent with the Torah’s broad messages regarding the relative unimportance of physical perfection.
Our greatest prophet, Moshe, the source of our Torah and the closest “confidante” of G-d, identified himself as having a speech defect, and G-d did not choose to heal him. (Shemot 4; although note that Sanhedrin 36b indicates that Moshe was not a baal mum, strictly speaking) When the prophet Shemuel was sent to select a king, and he was impressed by a candidate’s physical form, G-d rebuked him, “Human beings see with their eyes, but G-d sees the heart.” (Shemuel I 16:7) The Talmud records a story of a man who was insulted as ugly, and it approves of his response, “Go tell the Craftsman who made me.” (Taanit 20b) Torah and tradition render absurd the idea that there is any inferiority in, or any Divine rejection of, a human being whose form is damaged or incomplete.
Further: the demand for physical perfection hardly guaranteed a proper priesthood. The ranks of “unblemished” priests included Chofni and Pinchas, who abused their power in control of the Mishkan; the high priest Evyatar supported Adoniyahu’s coup; the descendants of the priestly Chashmonaim abused their power and fell in with the Greeks; and the heretical Sadducees claimed lineage from the high priest Tzaddok.
We must also realize that exclusion of people with physical challenges runs counter to the respectful and protective approach to the vulnerable trumpeted throughout the Torah. How could the Torah, which inveighs incessantly against abuse of the weak, perpetuate a stigma regarding people who are blind, lame, or suffer broken limbs?
One explanation is that the Torah is concerned about popular perception of the Beit haMikdash and its service. As Sefer haChinuch (275) suggests, “if [the priest] is of deficient form and unusual limbs, then even if he is righteous in his ways, his deeds will still not be found as positive in the eyes of his beholders.” This rationale is difficult, though; in other areas of religious practice the Torah harshly condemns weaknesses of the human psyche, including hedonism and miserliness. Imagine the lesson had the Torah explicitly required the inclusion of priests who exhibited physical defects!
We might understand the exclusion of the challenged kohen by recognizing that physical defects are acceptable for kings, sages, prophets and judges. [A judge on the Sanhedrin must have no physical defect, per Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:6, but Lechem Mishneh says this is only for the highest court. Regarding a king, I should note Shevet haLevi 8:251:3.] In every arena of Jewish life, public and private, we promote respect for every individual, regardless of physical challenges; only regarding the kohen is the law different. Perhaps this is because the kohen who serves in the Beit haMikdash is not viewed as a human being at all; rather, the kohen is a representative of G-d. [See Yoma 19a and Kiddushin 23b.] Indeed, the prophet Malachi identifies the kohen as an angel of G-d. (Malachi 2:7) In G-d, there is no defect.
Life offers two categories of success: the easy victory, and the triumph over adversity. For human beings, the latter may be the greater achievement; as Pirkei Avot 5:23 says, “The reward is commensurate with the pain endured.” Therefore, our role models – king, sage, prophet and judge – include human beings who struggle with, and overcome, physical obstacles. The kohen, though, represents G-d, for whom there is neither obstacle nor struggle, and in whom no defect can be perceived. The Divine agent, like his Master, must represent success without challenge.
The unblemished kohen, inhabiting the Beit haMikdash of G-d, is not a role model for us. We are all incomplete and challenged in some way, and therefore our ideal role models are other challenged human beings. We would be criminally foolish if we failed to value the role model in every human being, recognizing the unique personalities, talents and contributions of people who triumph over all manner of adversity.
When we gaze upon the representatives of G-d, let us see a world in which success comes easily. But when we ask ourselves whom we wish to become, let us look upon the “blind or lame”, the one with the broken leg or broken arm, the Moshe. These are our heroes, and from them we will learn success.
[For other ideas regarding the exclusion of priests with physical blemishes, see Toronto Torah 4:29 and 6:31.]