This sermon was delivered at our Saturday Morning Shabbat service on May 18th. You can listen to a prior recording of this drash on the Contact Chai podcast or watch it on Mishkan’s YouTube channel.

Eighteen episodes into the 2nd season of the hit TV show Glee, Rachel, a Jewish character played by the actress Leah Michelle, decides to get a nose job. Maybe some of you remember this show from way back in the early 2010’s about the dramas of a high school glee club, like a dance show choir group. Anyway Rachel, suffers an injury to her nose that gives her the opportunity to have reconstructive surgery, which her doctor, and a friend with a cute little button nose, think is a good idea. And so the episode becomes an exploration of how teenagers deal with having differences from some ideal of beauty or perfection that they know the world holds. Some kids are embarrassed about a physical feature of their body like their weight or eye color, some are embarrassed they need to wear glasses, or have a wheelchair, or have a mental illness they struggle with. At the beginning of the episode there are a few popular kids who are in the closet about being gay or lesbian — everyone struggling with how or whether to let people know the truth about them

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, includes a few lines that have deeply challenged Torah readers for milennia, having to do with exactly this issue — whether and how much of what makes one different, they should share with the community. The conversation emerges through some pretty challenging verses: Lev: 21:16-23.

The Lord said to Moses,

“Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who have a defect may come near to offer sacrifices to his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the Lord. He must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the Lord, who makes them holy.’” 

Oof, right? This is so hard to read every year. Torah seems to be saying that a priest or Kohen is only allowed to do all the Temple service on behalf of the community in public, if they are physically perfect, and not just physically perfect — without festering wounds or a crippled foot or a lazy eye — but functionally perfect, too — not blind or walk with a limp. The prohibition including damaged testicles also seems to imply included in his list are hidden or invisible illnesses, defects and disabilities as well.  

This is one of many places in the Torah where the words on the page directly contract a value we hold dear today, and seem to confirm the cruel feeling so many of us live with that if we show our differences to the world, we won’t be accepted. Could the Torah really be saying that human beings with physical and mental differences aren’t as fit to serve as priests who don’t have those differences? And if that’s what it’s saying, and you disagree (and I imagine you do)…Then what do we do with this book, so full of ancient and in some cases, deeply problematic, verses that categorically exclude people who we do not believe should be excluded from mainstream public life?

Rabbi Lauren Tuchman, a beautiful thinker and teacher who happens to be blind, writes, on this week’s parasha, that one could:

“Ignore this passage, given that kohanim no longer enjoy the privilege. Or we might be horrified by this passage, but we might also comfort ourselves with the knowledge that no longer are individuals with disabilities explicitly forbidden from ritual or communal leadership, as evidenced by the tiny but steadily growing cohort of rabbis, rabbinical students, cantors, and others who are bravely and boldly exercising spiritual leadership that is so desperately needed. We might think to ourselves that we are working ceaselessly for change, that in the aftermath of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) life has improved for individuals with disabilities in our society.”

We could remember that back in the day, the practice was often to euthanize babies with physical deformities, so given that as an alternative…What our text describes — just not letting them serve as priests — actually seems pretty progressive by contrast, right?

Tuchman writes: “We can look at this passage as a mere relic of its day, and congratulate ourselves for moving past it.” But then she asks, “Can we really?”

And of course the answer is no, we can’t congratulate ourselves for moving past this kind of thinking, because its presence in the Torah and the fact that we are bothered by it, alerts us to a persistent human dynamic that we are very much still wrestling with: that basic human bias against difference, which shows up in our immediate visceral reactions to physical appearance (our own and that of others — just think of how you react to seeing a pimple or some minor imperfection on your own face), and certainly how we react to encountering differences in ability and physicality, in ourselves and others around us. This line in the Torah, and our reaction to it, is a big red warning asking us to pay closer attention, there’s something we need to examine here, some kind of tikkun, healing, we need to make. 

So one thing I always warn our b’mitzvah students about in reading Torah is to be careful because Torah looks like a document full of instructions, things to do, prescriptions. But it’s actually a document describing how humans actually are: descriptions. The Torah does contain timeless wisdom for us that has not changed in milleia…but it also contains timeless truths about human failings and shortcomings and biases, which, if we pay attention to those too, we can learn by not repeating them. 

I think this is one of those places where we can’t read the Torah prescriptively, we must read it descriptively. In understanding what biases the Torah is alerting us to, we can transcend them, or at least do our absolute hardest to do better at welcoming, affirming and loving the things that make us and the people around us different from whatever idealized, perfect, whole, false, standard we’re holding ourselves to. And to be clear, we’re not doing any favors for people with disabilities or differences. Rather, we are making the world a safer, healthier, happier place for everyone, liberating all of us from false standards of beauty, bodies and brains that confine us.

And to be clear, we are ALL confined and hurt by these false ideals and standards of beauty and health. In Jonathan Haidts’ new book the Anxious Generation, he correlates the dramatic decline in teenage mental health, especially among girls, not just with smartphones and social media, but with the invention of the front facing camera, that turned selfies into a thing, making us all obsessed with how our image compares to the filtered, adjusted, A.I.-inflused, perfect faces and bodies we’re seeing in our feeds. This kind of social comparison to an ideal — present for millennia as a feature of human society — is now available on steroids in all of our pockets all of the time and is harming all of us.

Rabbi Ruth Adar writes:

I got the idea from this Torah portion that a person who was leading services should be physically perfect, and that if I needed a cane or a wheelchair to function, then I was not fit to lead a service. For years, I hid my own disability when it came time to lead services, despite the fact that standing for any length of time gave me excruciating pain. As a result, I was not at my best on the bimah. I was fuzzy minded, clouded with pain. I mispronounced words. I forgot things. I did not give the congregation the leadership it deserved. Eventually, I decided that I should not be a congregational rabbi, because of the disability I struggled to hide.”

This is deeply sad. Think of all of the talented people with disabilities who have exerted great effort to hide them, or exerted great effort because the architecture of the world often doesn’t lend itself to people with a wheelchair or walker, or hearing or vision disabilities. And so, oftentimes their effort to share their talent and brilliance ends up coming in spite of their disability or difference, instead of simply in the presence of it, through the wisdom and beauty arrived at through living with it. 

Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, a professor in Theology and Religious Studies at Georgetown, recently wrote a book that won the National Jewish Book Award, called Loving Your Own Bones: Disability Wisdom and the Spiritual Subversiveness of Knowing Ourselves Whole. She says, “Rather than asking what religious texts say about disability, ask instead ‘What does disability offer to Jewish tradition, to spiritual life and to the practice of building meaningful community?’” 

Because the truth is, differences and disabilities of all kinds are ALL OVER the Torah — and now I’m expanding to include all manner of differences that distinguish a person from some idealized norm, which in their day was an able-bodied-cis-hetero man (probably not white, though, we are talking about the ancient middle-east). Our patriarch Isaac was blind. Our patriarch Jacob walked with a limp after a wrestling accident with an angel. By many accounts, our ancestor Joseph was a flamboyant multicolored coat-wearing fashionista who had no interest in the advances of his sexy female employer — maybe into guys? And then you have Moses, who expresses his self-doubt about his own fitness for leadership because he speaks with a stutter. Watts Belser points out that Moses’ brother Aaron stands in as the first “reasonable accommodation” in the Torah, becoming an essential part of the prophet’s communication team. God grants Moses the gift of signs, his staff, the plagues — an invitation to embrace visual language and tactile experiences, rather than relying only on words. God also promises to be with Moses as he speaks. God doesn’t fix Moses’ tongue but relies on it, gives him support, and promises to be with him, just as God created Moses in the first place, and created his tongue, God will be with him and open his heart to believe that he indeed has everything he needs to lead.

The truth is, even the rabbis who created modern rabbinic Judaism 2,000 years ago, understood that the problem here isn’t the person with the difference– whatever that difference is. The problem is our bias, the issue is how distracted we get by other people’s differences. In the Mishnah (Megillah 4.7) Rav Yehudah says that a kohen with stains on his hands also may not give the priestly blessing, “because people would be inclined to stare.”

Rabbi Adar writes: “If in fact the reason for keeping the kohanim with visible ‘defects’ from the Temple service was that “people will stare,” then it suggests that the problem is not in the disability, but in the reactions of the public to disabilities, and differences, even differences as innocuous as stains on their hands.” A few hundred years later, the rabbis go even further in counteracting the harmful implications of the Torah text, writing in the Talmud, “If the kohen is known locally, and people are used to him,” then there is no impediment to his participating in the service. Meaning, if people know him, and know his mind and his skills, then it’s fine for him to serve them, despite what might disqualify him in a place where people would judge him negatively for his flaws because they didn’t know him as well. Once we know someone well we accept and love them not despite their differences but in the presence of them. We accept them the way that God accepts Moses, broken yet whole. Worthy of being seen as a leader, not by fixing all our differences or disabilities, but by recognizing them and accommodating them so a person’s wisdom and talent can flow freely.

So, paradoxically, the Torah, plus all that the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud had to say about it over thousands of years, help us to see where the real work of change, of healing, lies. Not in the person with the difference, but in the person who is distracted by it. The problem is a world that perpetuates harmful and unrealistic ideals of perfection and asks all of us to be more like that ideal and less like our beautiful varied selves. Rabbi Adar writes: “If I am ‘distracted’ by someone’s race, or accent, or the wheelchair they use,’ the fault isn’t in them. Rather, she says, “It is my task to ‘get over it’ — or more accurately, to get over myself.”

The bias or suspicion of difference is something our brains adopted millions of years ago, probably for self-protection out on the Savanna when any little change in the environment could have been dangerous. So overcoming or transcending this very human instinct is not something that happens once — it’s something we practice, and lovingly help each other remember. Part of community is feeling safe enough to share one’s real self, and in being one’s real self, helping and inspiring others to feel that they can be their real, whole selves too. 

The way that episode of Glee ends, by the way, is with a big dance number, with each member of the glee club coming out on the stage in a t-shirt that announces the very thing we as the audience knew they were self-conscious about and they were trying to hide. The dance number begins with the first teenage boy on stage who’s Tshirt says “Likes Boys” next to a Black female student who’s t-shirt says “No Weave.” On the stage next to them dances an adorable guy in a hat whose T-shirt says “Can’t Sing.” Another kid’s shirt says, “Can’t Dance.” A kid in glasses using a wheelchair wears a T-shirt that says “4-Eyes” while an Asian student’s t-shirt says “Brown Eyes.” Each student is modeling both embracing their uniqueness not as deficits but as a beautiful part of their whole selves. And, finally, Lea Michelle dances out last wearing a shirt that says “Nose” having decided not to fix her perfect Jewish nose.

The Kotzker rebbe used to say, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” Rabbi Shefa Gold writes, “I look at Nature, I look at the human predicament of every person I meet. And I cannot find something that is unblemished. The closer I look, the more imperfections I find. Everything and everyone is in process.” And so, I want to bless you tonight that you can experience yourself as whole, as perfectly imperfect. I want to bless you that you can experience your face, your eyes, your ears, your nose, your mouth, your voice, your chest, your belly, your hands and your feet, all the connective tissue holding you together, and all the experiences you’ve had in this body. I want to bless you to feel that they are a gift, not an accident, but an asset. Not something to hide, but something to share, and in doing so find community, find wisdom, and find the deeper spirituality and satisfaction of being the person you were put into this world to be. We need you. Just the way you are.

Shabbat shalom.