Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Emor 2015

Parashat Emor
8th May 2015 - Rabbi Charley Baginsky

There is a popular word game in my family, it goes as follows: one person says “I’ve got business” to which they then add a business, such as racing horses. The others then ask “how’s business” and the first replies with an appropriate answer such as, in this case “well it fell at the first hurdles” or:

I’ve got business
What’s your business?
How’s business?

Were this game to be continued with reference to this week’s portion it might go something like this:
I’ve got business
What’s your business?
The Priesthood.
How’s business?
It takes a lot of sacrifice!

Perhaps you can do better? All very amusing, but actually there is a little to smile about in this week’s portion when it comes to the ·business of priests – indeed I am sure the following passage makes us all squirm:

Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No person who has any defect may come near: no person who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no person with a crippled foot or hand, or who is hunchbacked or dwarfed, 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 offerings made to God by fire. If they have a defect; They must not come near to offer the food of his God. (Leviticus 21:16-21).

According to these rules any kind of difference, anything that stops a person being seen as whole, makes them ineligible to draw near to God. It is one of those passages in the Torah that one wonders about drawing the attention of the congregation to for fear of alienating them from the scripture as a whole. And yet, one only has to relook at the characters of the Torah, those who drew closest to God to see what a bizarre statement this is - Abraham and Sarah are described by the Talmud as tumtumim – meaning of uncertain sex. Other traditions see Isaac and Leah both as having visual impairments, Jacob after wrestling with the angel is left limping and Moses famously had a stutter, relying on Aaron to deliver important speeches. Indeed, if one really presses this statement of the Torah that the Priest must be totally without blemish to its full extent then it would seem that even those closest to God were not and would not be eligible to serve in the Temple.

Perhaps as Progressive Jews, who have no desire to return to Temple times, this is of no consequence and yet I am loathe to just leave it alone and not try and understand it a little bit more. Interestingly in the same portion we have one of the most democratic commandments – keeping Shabbat and leaving the edges of the fields for the poor. Shabbat represents ultimate freedom, for only those who are free can rest – it should therefore be a basic right of all – as the Torah tells us the men, the women, the children, the stranger within our gates and even the animals are entitled to celebrate the Shabbat. The command to also leave the edges of our fields tells us that all of us can play a part in building a fairer society, our metaphorical fields may be large or small, but all most afford to leave the corners for those less well off than ourselves. Within one portion we are faced with two models of being holy – the non-democratic inherited priesthood which includes only those who have no blemish or scar and the democratic, the one open to all, a method which seeks freedom and sustenance for all, that requires no fancy garments, no sweet smelling incense and takes us where we are at – warts and all so to speak, allows us to be ourselves.

It strikes me that days before the upcoming elections that this is a poignant portion. We are well aware that it is not a perfect world and that it is unlikely in our lifetimes that we ourselves or our world will reach perfection. Yet we need to remain equally aware that this does not stop us from having an obligation towards the journey of making it better.

In Progressive Judaism we stand so completely removed from the ancient world of Priests without blemishes – we see our Rabbis and so too our politicians with all their flaws and as for burnt offerings – well for starters there are far too many health and safety regulations for them. But while our responsibility to vote and to vote with our conscious is one which I know many of us take very seriously, it cannot end at the ballot box. Alongside those we give the power to govern each of us must also take their own part in seeking to create a more complete and fair world. Each of us, in our own ways are imperfect, Each of us have wounds that connect with individual stories, each of us have places where we are broken – some in visible places and some in invisible ones but this brokenness should provide us with a reminder that holiness comes from helping to provide and support others who are in need and not just expect this to be the responsibility of those we elect.