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Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Sometimes the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus seems so foreign to our modern understanding of spirituality that it’s a real challenge to comprehend the underlying principles. Such is the case with the opening verses of Parashat Emor, which present an impossibly strict code of holiness for the priestly caste. As we read these verses we get a sense that a priest had to be a perfected being if he was to perform his sacrificial duties; he had to be absolutely pure in mind, body, and spirit. What may be most disturbing to our modern sensitivities is the physical requirement for priesthood:

“No man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long…or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes… No man… who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Eternal’s offering by fire… the food of his God” (Lev. 21:18-20).

What human being can meet such a standard? Who among us can claim to be defect-free? The next chapter, however, may help shed light on this passage. There we read:

“And when a person offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice… to the Eternal… it must be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it. Anything blind or injured, or maimed, or with… a boil-scar, or scurvy—such you shall not offer to the Eternal… anything with its testes bruised or crushed….” (Lev. 22:21-24).

Here, Torah seems to make a perplexing analogy between the priest and the animal he was to sacrifice. So perhaps the need for holiness was not about the priest as a person, not about the priest’s self. In fact, I suspect that the priest viewed this continuous drive for holiness, this strict way of life, as a stringent holistic spiritual practice to realize self-less-ness. For this indeed was about function, not about personhood. For both animal and priest, the only raison d’être was to serve as instruments of a greater end: the relationship between the person who brought the sacrifice and God. The ideal of purity—which, our rabbis are quick to explain, was never a reality—stems from the notion that the priest along with the sacrificed animal served as a conduit, a channel through which a connection took place between God and the people. For this to work in the mind of the “offerer” in the ancient world, he needed to be able to believe the illusion of unattainable perfection embodied by both his animal and his priest.

How do we, for whom the sacrificial cult is ancient history, enter into relationship with the Divine? The Book of Psalms offers a window into new possibilities: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a humbled and broken heart” (Psalm 51:18-19).

The paradox is compelling. Once the practice is no longer directed to the outside but towards an awakening on the inside, the need for perfection dissolves and we can embrace our human fallibility. Now we can acknowledge and accept not only our natural human limitations, but also our inherent defectiveness. What we are asked to sacrifice is the illusion of the impossible standards of perfection to which we hold ourselves, our loved ones, and our world. We are limited beings who do the best we can facing every moment, living every day. Though we would like to think we are in control of our lives, we are not. Though we would like to mold our lives, our world, and our loved ones in our image and according to our vision of how they should be, we can’t. Perhaps the prerequisite to knowing God is to stop playing God and to live, instead, with a humbled and broken heart. The Kabbalists tell us that the heart itself doesn’t need to be broken; it is the klippot—the husks of illusion—that encircle the heart that need to be “sacrificed,” to be surrendered, for only at the center of the heart, God’s dwelling place, can we find our own True Self.