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Bechukotai.  June 1, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

The Torah is filled with commandments and laws that are designed to help us live better lives. Lives that are more spiritual, lives that help us live with other people in peace and harmony. The laws of fairness and justice are well known to help us be creative in our lives and at the same time prevents us from becoming selfish and self-centered. As Hillel the sage would say, you have a right to look out for yourself; but you can’t look out ONLY for yourself.

There are places, however, where the Torah does not create fair and just places for all in society. Leviticus and its priestly code are notorious for creating inequalities between the chosen priests and the rest of the Jewish people. Judaism has struggled for thousands of years trying to bring justice to those parts of society that the third book of the Bible seems to exclude. The Torah, for example, tries to be fair to those who are slaves, but it took many centuries before Judaism could ban slavery entirely. The Torah seems to relegate women to a secondary place in society and it took almost two thousand years to bring equality to women. In the Torah, just a couple of weeks ago, we read that homosexuality is forbidden and only recently we have found a way to include sexual orientation as a right protected in the Jewish community.

This morning, as we conclude the book of Vayikra, in our parsha, in the final chapter of Behukotai, we are told that when one makes a vow to the Temple, different people have different values attached to them. Older men are worth 50 shekels; women of the same age are only worth 30. Younger men are worth 20 shekels, younger women and girls are worth only half that. Men over the age of 60 are worth 15 shekels and women over 60 years old are only worth ten. No reason is given for the discrepancy, but we can imagine that even in the biblical world, women were not worth as much as a man of the same age.

We can also look back at a problematic section of the Torah found a couple of weeks ago in Parshat Emor. It reads, “No man of our offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind or lame or has a limb too short or too long. No one with a broken leg or broken arm; or who has a hunchback, or a dwarf or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil, scurvy or a crushed teste. No man from the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Lord’s gift.” The Torah goes on to say that he has the same privileges of any Cohen/Priest, but he can’t officiate in any way in the Temple.

Over the last 50 years or so, we have, in this country, had a revolution regarding body image. For a long time, the most important thing in society was the way that we looked. It was not just about birth defects and disabilities; In the early part of the 20th century, we spent a great deal of time and money trying to make our bodies look perfect. For a long time, the model of humanity was for men; tall, clean shaven, no grey hair, a flat stomach, and broad shoulders. For women, the model kept changing; sometimes straight hair was “in” sometimes curly. The height of the heel of their shoes and the length of their skirts changed every season. There was always some model that was touted as having the “perfect body” but that too changed according to what fashions were in style. At one point, in the 1960’s, women’s bodies were so thin that today if we were looking at them, we might think these models had an eating disorder.

I was lucky to grow up after the worst of this period were over. Over the last 50 years we have come to understand that every person is unique, and we can celebrate differences, not perfection. Having the perfect body and wearing the latest fashions is not so important today. Certainly, fashion magazines still try to tell us that we could be more beautiful, more perfect than we already are if only we wore something that is the latest style or used some new cosmetic. But by and large we are able to create our own unique look, a look that takes into account our special body type and appearances, and then, when we grow tired of it, we can change that look to a different look. It is all about being comfortable with our bodies.

Which brings me back to how the Torah defines what a priest should look like. Commentators have tried to explain about how everything in the Mishkan/Temple had to look and be perfect in order to serve a perfect God. But many modern commentators are uncomfortable with a religion that seems to value body perfection, over accepting each person for who they are no matter what they look like.

There are two midrashim, from the ancient Rabbis, that seem to undermine what the Torah is trying to advocate. The first is a teaching about appearances. The Sages noted that when the Roman emperor would create a new coin for the empire, he would put his face on the coin and every coin would look exactly alike, created in the image of the emperor. But God created humanity in God’s image and yet each person is unique and different. The teaching here is that our God is perfect and has placed divine perfection in each of us, no matter what we look like. We are all in the image of God.

When some accident in nature or in human circles causes us to become disabled or different, we don’t lose our divine image. We are not less divine because we are not perfect. Some Rabbis go so far to say that we are not ever born perfect. The point of Jewish circumcision is to take a newborn baby boy and, with a bit of surgery, make that body more perfect because of our commitment to God’s command. In the end, God loves us all, just the way we are, no matter what we think may be making us less than perfect.

The second Midrash goes a step further. The story is that Rabbi Eliezer, the great sage with the photographic memory, known far and wide for his great scholarship, was once out riding his horse, feeling really good about all that he had learned. As he rode down the road, he came across a man who was greatly deformed. Rabbi Eliezer then asked the man, “Tell me sir, is everyone from your town as ugly as you are?” The man looked up at the sage and said, “I don’t know, but why don’t you tell my creator how ugly a vessel he has created”.

Instantly the sage realized the grave sin he had done. Rabbi Eliezer got off his horse and begged the man to forgive him. But the man was adamant, “Go tell my creator what an ugly vessel He has created.”. All the way into town the Rabbi begged for forgiveness and the man refused. Arriving in town, the people gathered to welcome the great sage, but the ugly man was not impressed, “There should be fewer like him in the world”. The people of the town were aghast and asked why he would say such a thing about a great sage. So, he told them what the Rabbi had said, and the Rabbi confessed to his sin in front of the whole town. Only after a long time did the people of the town convince the man to forgive the repentant sage.

Who are we to judge others about how they look? Who are we to declare who is unfit because of a defect or of a deformity? Who are we to decide who is disabled and who is not? Certainly, there are people who endure grave injuries that leave them unable to use limbs, or force doctors to remove damaged arms or legs. Some of these people fall into deep despair as they mourn the lives that have been lost. But others move on ahead, trying, in spite of the disability, to fulfill lifelong dreams and aspirations. How are we in any position to judge which lives are worthwhile and which ones are not?

It would be simple for me to say that there is no perfection in the world. Even the greatest supermodels will tell you that they think that some part of their body is not perfect and needs to be addressed. But in the end the myth of perfection is not about finding the perfect body, it is understanding that all of us have perfect bodies. They are just the right bodies for each of us. It does not pay to dream of all we could do if we had the body of a famous athlete or magazine cover model. Our creator made us all different, and yet we all are created in the image of God. It is a great sin to criticize someone else because they are not the same as we are. It is a great sin to devalue somebody else because we think they are not worth as much as someone else.

I guess I do have to add that we are also obligated to care for the body that we have. We do have to care for it, keeping it clean and healthy. We don’t have the right to do things that we know can damage it. Eating right and proper exercise are part of the care we have to take. We don’t have to be super thin or super muscular, but we do need to properly care for the body that God gives us. The idea is not to wish our bodies could be different, but to look for ways we can do good things with the bodies we have been given.

Our worth can not be tied to the value of anyone else. Each of us has been created to do something unique and special with our lives, something that perhaps no one else can do, or perhaps to be a part of a small group that together makes a big difference in the world. It does not matter where we come from. It does not matter our gender or our station in life. It does not matter what kind of a disability we may have. Our goal in life is to change our curses into blessings by using what we have to help others become more than what they could have become alone.

One of the first things I was able to do when I became a Rabbi, was to vote to accept women rabbis into the Rabbinical Assembly, that, until that moment, had been only open to men. I never regretted my vote for a moment. To this day, I believe that women have created a space in the Rabbinical world that would never have come to be except for the outlook, the insight and learning that is unique to my women colleagues. All Rabbis today are blessed to be able to see the world through the eyes of our female colleagues.

Everyone has something to teach us. No matter their gender, race, disability, national origin or economic status. We do not have the right to dismiss anyone because we don’t like the clothes they are wearing. If we are open to it, there is much that such diversity can open our eyes to see and to appreciate. When we open our hearts to others who are different from us, we open our eyes to a world much wider than we could ever imagine. And we are able to find God in places we never would have thought to look.

May the God who creates different kinds of human beings, open our hearts to find the divinity in every living soul. And may we touch the lives of others as we are touched by them as we say…

Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, May 18, 2019.

Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780