I go to daven each morning at a shule in my neighborhood that not infrequently struggles for a minyan.Often, even when we have a minyan, we are without a kohen, priest, to recite the Prietly Blessings. Last week a fellow off the street enterred the shule. He was dishevelled and unshaven (and not due to observance of the mourning period of Sefira). His speech was slurred and limitted. He had no tefilin or talis with him. He had the appearance of someone severely compromised of both circumstances and self. Yet this Jew was keen to be part of the minyan. He was given talis and tefilin, which he managed, with some challenge, to put on. Soon after the service got going he went person to person with his hand out, silently pleading for a donation. It was clear to all of us that this man was living on the margins of society and coping with many issues including mental illness.
On this day, while we had a minyan, we were sure their was no kohen in the house. All of a sudden,to the amazement of everyone, when the person leading the prayers got to the place in the repetition of the amida for the Priestly Blessings, this man started taking off his shoes and preparing himself to ascend the duchan to recite the blessings. Silently he claimed his right as a priest to perform the ritual. And so it was. He mounted the elevated space in the front of the synagogue. In response we the assembled stood and bowed our heads ready to receive his blessings. Word by word the one leading the services led this man through the traditional liturgy. On this day in this context, this marginalized, impoverished, and mentally ill man was not only our peer in counting for the minyan. He was our benifactor. He blessed us!
This week we read the parsha of Emor (outside of Israel you read Acharai-Kedoshim). The beginning of the reading lays out disciplines unique to the priests inasmuch as they have an added layer of kedusha, personal holiness,due their mandate to serve in the Temple. The laws of the kohanim also details conditions that invalidate a priest for service. The Torah provides a list of physical blemishes all of which preclude a kohain from performing rituals. And as if this list were not enough the Talmud goes on to add additional blemishes, some of them appearing slight indeed.
The Torah is clear. In order for a priest to serve in the Temple and perform the rituals he needs to be without physcial deformity of any kind. Like the sacrifices themselves that need to be without blemish, the kohen who offers them needs to be without any unusual physical markings.
We are a faith that emphasizes the essence rather than the form. Our tradition has never glorified the externals. We judge an individual on the basis of his/her goodness rather than beauty. As King Shlomo wrote in Proverbs and as we recite in the Eishet Chayil song each Friday night at the Shabbat table, "Grace is deceitful and beauty is vain. It is the G-d fearing woman who is to be praised". How is it then that we disqualify a kohen for service simply because of a physical deformity.
The kohen may be a scholar, a tzadik, pure of heart and soul and yet be illegitimate?
How can that be?
The vignette I shared about the kohen in the synagogue seems reflective of the values we are taught to embrace. The laws of the Temple seem brutally unfair.
Tradition offers a variety of explanations to understand the disqualification of the kohen on the basis of being physically compromised. The one that I find most easy to digest argues that the Divine blessing cannot be channelled except through a vessel that is without deformity. The kohen is a vessel to channel the Divine blessings from heaven to earth. Any compromise in the vessel compromises the flow of the blessing G-d intends for us through the worship in the Temple and the service of the priests.
Is it unfair? Is it unfair that a kohen should be ruled out, no matter how good he is as a person simply because he was born with a defect? If I was a kohen would I find it unfair that I was declared invalid for a role I thought meant for me and one my brotherss enjoy?
The answer I think is "Yes!!!". It is unfair indeed. But life is unfair! One of the great and sad realizations we need to come to as we mature is that life is indeed unfair and often unfair. The family we were born into, our appearance, our health, our success or lack of it, relative to others is all unfair! There is no correlation between the relative goodness of a person and the circumstances of their life...and when there appears to be correlation it is more often the exception rather than the rule.
No question more troubled people of faith, from Job to the Sages of the Talmud than "Why do bad things happen to good people and vice versa?".
The disqualified kohen, born with a physical defect, through no fault of his own, can join the rest of us in struggling with life's unfairness. Blemishes make a kohen invaild for service. That's the way it is. It's sad for this person,but it's not bad.
One of the great works of our life is to get over resentments for things that happenned to us that were and are unfair. It is not that we have no right to feel sad about the unfairness we experience. Often we do get the raw end of the stick.
But we need to know that sad is not the same as bad. It's true, what happens to us feels unfair, and as Job proved, no amount of rationalizations offerred can turn unfair into fair. Yet what happens to us is meant for us and is our story. Our task is to live this unfair life, rather than protest it!
I have not seen that kohen who blessed us again since that morning a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps he will return when he finds himself desparate for a few shekels or for a bit of regard. Yes, it was great that he had a moment to rise above the unfairness of his life and assume the priestly mantle. But life for him is far more unfair than for the kohen who, due to a slight blemish, is renderred unfit for service in the Temple while otherwise being fully functional.
What is wonderous is that this Jew, the kohen of my neighborhood, so compromised of life and circumstances, does not let the unfairness of his life prevent him from blessing others!
He refuses to let life's unfairness rob him of his opportunity to be true to his purpose.
I look forward to soon again know the gift of answering "Amen" to his prayers and to again bow my head to receive his blessing!