If I am Here, All is Here: A Contemplation on Defects & Wholeness

How do we measure human worth? What constitutes wholeness or greatness? And, by way of contrast, what constitutes a defect, an imperfection that renders another person less than complete?  These questions intrude when we consider the lives of people with special needs, and they intrude as well when we peer into the depths of our own hearts and face our inner selves in the naked light of honesty: are we really good enough to do the tasks at hand?  Are we pure enough?  Are we holy enough?  Has the Torah sufficiently gone through us to transform us into someone sufficiently decent?  Won't our shortcomings become immediately apparent, and immediately visible?

I’d like to create room to rethink the way we conceive our challenges, our imperfections, our special needs, through the light of Torah. In addressing who is permitted to bring a sacrifice in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Torah imposes the following restriction: Ish mizeracha l'dorotam asher yiheyeh bo mum, lo yikra lehakriv lechem l'elohav; ki chol ish asher bo mum lo yikrav – No one of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect – a mum – shall be qualified to offer food to God; no one who has a mum – a defect – shall be qualified (Leviticus 21:17)."

Now, I have been schooled in the historical method, and my first defense against troubling verses in the Torah is to quarantine them securely behind a historical context, so let us begin our contemplation using that approach.  The Kohen in the Temple is understood to be a symbol of perfection. Because the Temple ritual is physical, the Kohen’s perfection must also be physical.  And that perfection is understood by the biblical text as shleimut—as wholeness.  Therefore, the Kohen can't be missing any body part, because he has to literally embody that wholeness in the presence of God.  Indeed, as the Torah goes on to state, ach el ha-parochet lo yavo'u, v'el ha-mizbeach lo yigash, ki mum bo – One who has a defect shall not enter behind the curtain, nor come near the altar (Leviticus 21:23)."

But history won’t remove the problem for most of us.  Are we then saying that we can't draw near to God, we cannot serve on behalf of the community, if we have a mum, a defect?  Is there anyone among us who is perfect?  Is there anyone– anywhere – who doesn't, in fact, manifest not one mum but many?  Is it possible that only those who are perfect are capable of serving God and of serving each other?  Certainly, on a literal level, this has not been true in Jewish life.  Our father Jacob limped his way into greatness.  Moses spoke what are surely history's greatest orations with a speech impediment.  The Talmud is filled with great figures – Nahum ish Gamzo, Rav Sheshet, and others – who, with their physical blemishes, perhaps because of them, went on to attain spiritual greatness.  And then, theologically, certain it is that God is the only one who is perfect.  Can it be, then, that only God can serve?

The Torah raises this very question in the book of Devarim. Shichet lo?  Lo! banav mumam – Is corruption then God's?  No, God's children are the ones who are blemished (Deuteronomy 32:5)." Rabbinic genius turns the verse around:  "Af al pi shehem m'laim mumim, kruim banim – even though they are full of blemishes, they are still God's children (Sifri Devarim, Parashat Ha’azinu, Piska 3)." 

We are – all of us – God's children, blemishes, defects, imperfections, and all, and we cannot afford to allow human shortcomings or disabilities to prevent us from taking the responsibility that is ours to do what good we can, to glorify Torah and to testify to God’s sovereignty as we might.  So I'd like to try to offer a different percolation of that initial verse in Parashat Emor.  I'd like us to consider the fact that the one thing a person cannot ever truly have is a defect.  A defect is a lack of something.  How can we possibly possess that which we lack?  What we have when we have a mum is not a lack--we have the perception of lacking something.  A mum is only possible if we construe ourselves as somehow deficient.

A mum, then, is that lack which makes us feel incomplete.  It is the part of some imaginary whole that cannot exist but in our minds.  I would like to propose, then, that wholeness does not mean physical perfection.  Indeed, shleimut is not perfection of any kind. Shleimut means serving God with all our being, with the entirety of who we are, with leaving no part of ourselves outside of the divine service--"bechol levav'cha, uvechol nafshecha, uvechol meod'cha, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5)"  God doesn't demand of us that we apportion ourselves into little pieces, some parts of which are kosher, some parts of which are acceptable, some parts of which may be public, and the rest must be hidden away.  It is that hiding which is the mum, and a person with such a mum cannot serve the Holy One, and cannot stand before an imperfect community pretending to be perfect. 

One can serve the Eternal only with the wholeness that comes from imperfection. With one's entire being, both positive traits and negative; as Rashi says, "bishnei yitzarecha, with both your impulses."  We can serve the Lord only if our entire history, our entire life, even our special needs are brought with us into the divine service.  Only if our minds and our hearts and our souls are engaged passionately in the works that we do and, as we remind ourselves each Kol Nidrei, only if we bring with us our entire community--not just the saints but the sinners too, not just those with special needs, but those not yet with special needs.

Perhaps then, the wholeness to which the Torah alludes is the willingness to stand in our entirety – warts and all, defects and all, special needs and all – and to offer them to God as a sacred service.  Perhaps what the Torah is reminding us, then, is an insistence on a community that includes all of its members – that makes none of them invisible, that asks none of them to step outside.  Perhaps only that community is a community fit to offer sacrifice that God will accept.

We are charged, then, with a simple but awesome task:

Bring our entire being to the service of God and our fellow creatures.  Leave no part of ourselves outside.  Leave no piece of ourselves invisible.  Be passionate in the service we offer. The Talmud reminds us, "Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu liva bei--God wants the heart."  Let us live in such a way, building communities that are welcoming and accessible, so that those we live, learn, and work with will know that they, too, are precious, and that each one of them, because of their imperfections, are truly God's children.  Let us show them not to postpone encountering Torah, living mitzvot, and rejoicing in God's love until the day that they are perfect – such a day will never come.  And besides, the Torah was not given to angels.  We are all of us blemished; human wholeness does not come from some elusive perfection, but rather from the radical act of taking hold of our imperfections and offering even them.  "Be-chol derakhekha da'ehu--in all your ways, know God (Proverbs 3:6)."

It is recorded in Massekhet Sukkah that Hillel has the audacity to speak on God's behalf.  I am going to take my cue from him and muster the audacity to mistranslate Hillel.  God (if not Hillel) would want it that way.  "'Im ani kan, hakol kan.  If I am here,' says God, 'all is here.'" Who knows, but that for God to be truly present, our all – including the all of those with special needs – must also be truly present. 


Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, where he is Vice-President and the author of The Bedside Torah (McGraw-Hill). He writes a free weekly email Torah commentary, Today’s Torah,” which can be subscribed to at bartson@aju.edu.