This week we get to be a little medical, which is always fun:
And the redundancy of the text lends itself to midrashic analysis:
This list of blemishes that disqualify the כהן is strikingly similar to the list later on in the parasha:
I can understand why bringing a blemished animal would be unacceptable. When one brings a gift, it should be the best possible. But why are blemished kohanim disqualified? As Rabbi Frand asks:
The Chabad website gives a kabbalistic answer relating to the defection of the moon, based on the Zohar, וישב קפא,א. I’m not going there.
Sforno explains that it’s just not respectful to serve ה׳ with a blemish:
But that’s very unsatisfying. Why would ה׳ care about the external appearance of a person? It’s what’s inside that counts! Most commentators assume the מום represents something deeper:
The idea that a physical blemish reflects some sort of spiritual deficiency is attractive, and we understand that concept from the laws of צרעת, but then why should a congenital deformity be invalidating? No one is born doomed to fail:
The כלי יקר acknowledges the הלכה but does not give a justification. The משך חכמה tries to explain it as part of ה׳'s mercy for the truly guilty, that having a blemish does not prove his spiritual lack, since it may be congenital:
But that still seems terribly unjust to the בעל מום. Why is he forever banned from serving ה׳?
Rabbi Frand, citing Rav Elya Meir Bloch, takes a different approach. He sees this as another concession to human nature. If we see someone who looks different, we will stare. We will not concentrate on the service. It’s not fair, but it is human nature.
We’ve seen the “concession” approach to טעמי המצוות before, with sacrifices and the scapegoat, but here it remains unsatisfying since we are discriminating against a human being. Why can’t the Torah demand that we overcome our biases and learn to see people for their true worth? The Torah requires that for לא תחמוד, that we overcome our instinctive feelings!
I have an answer that does not answer the question but justifies the הלכה while making it part of a much larger, much harder question:
The sacrifices, and indeed the entire experience of the בית המקדש, is meant to be a recreation of the experience at Sinai, the closeness to ה׳ at that moment of revelation:
One aspect of that experience was reflected in the physical bodies of בני ישראל:
I would propose that the כהן has to fill a role in recreating the Sinai experience, and that being physically perfect is part of that role. It’s part of the inherent requirements of the position, which even the ADA would acknowledge. It’s no more unfair than the fact that no one would allow me to sing in the opera; I’m physically unable to do it right. The bigger question is then, why does ה׳ create people with disabilities? A כהן may be disqualified from serving because of a coloboma, and I have ways of understanding that, but why would ה׳ give him the coloboma in the first place?
And for that question, I have no answer. It’s the only good question, צדיק ורע לו, and it has been asked since time immemorial. So my inability to answer at least leaves me in good company.