As I write this, the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing is fresh in my mind. I am haunted by the images of runners who trained for years, only to lose their legs in an act of brutal terror. How difficult, then, to turn to the Torah and find this passage in Parshat Emor:
“The Eternal spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God… He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Eternal have sanctified them.” (Leviticus 21:16-17, 23)
These verses pertain to the Temple service and the role of the ancient priesthood, not the present day. But even for liberal Jews who no longer follow the categories of Kohen, Levi and Israel, we read these words and search for meaning.
What are we to make of this teaching, that the presence of someone who is disabled would profane God’s sacred place? We aspire to a world in which people are not defined by their abilities or disabilities, in which blindness or a broken leg would not keep someone from serving God.
Rabbi Jack Riemer challenges us to ask whether our synagogues live up to our best values.
If Yitzchak Avinu, our forefather Isaac, who became legally blind in his old age, were to come into our synagogue and want to daven with us, would we have a large print prayer book available for him?
If Yaakov Avinu, our forefather Jacob, who was injured in an encounter with a mysterious stranger and limped for the rest of his life as a result, were to come into our synagogue and want an aliyah, would he be able to get up to the bimah?
If Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our teacher, who had a speech defect, were to come into our shul and want to read from the Torah that he gave us, could we handle it without becoming embarrassed if he were to stutter?
And, I would add (inspired by Ora Horn Prouser, author of Esau’s Blessing): if Esau came into our synagogue, with a classic case of ADHD, would anyone take time to understand him or train him to become a bar mitzvah?
Maimonides, in explaining Emor, writes: “Most people do not estimate a person by his true form, but by his limbs and his clothing, and the Temple was to be held in great reverence by all” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:45). In other words, if people saw someone disabled serving in the Temple, it would decrease their respect for the community and its institutions.
Today, I would suggest it is the opposite. Many of us have old buildings, and to renovate them is neither easy nor inexpensive. But we too are getting older, and none of us know what life may bring. Today’s runner may be in a wheelchair tomorrow, and it is our responsibility to make sure he or she can reach the bimah. Our spiritual homes will be truly holy when everyone can come in.
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal.