Beauty is truth and Truth beauty, that is all you know on earth and all you need to know. This penned by Coleridge in Ode to a Grecian Urn, because in ancient Greek philosophy, beauty reflected the divine ideals that the universe was built upon. Physical Perfection: we are bombarded with images of the young, beautiful and perfect, at least on the outside. Teens starve themselves, their self image on the line for a “look”, and I have frustratingly met some of these children. But Nobody’s perfect, and more importantly: Perfection on the outside does not mirror the soul on the inside. This week’s parasha, Emor has a section which is a challenge to my very imperfect self, .In Lev. 21:19 It reads a flawed Cohen may not offer sacrifice, including the blind, lame, deformed nose or misshapen limb. This mirrors sacrificed animal requirements. My thanks to Rabbi Lisa Malik, for inspiring this train of thought. She taught that since both the life of the priest and the animal are gifts, offerings to God, it is simply bad form to offer what is blemished. Yet there is still value judgement that what we consider beautiful on the outside is better. And that is a problem, perhaps on three different levels:
1. Beauty depends upon how closely you look, and how well you see. In Gulliver’s travels, one journey is to the land of giants. One of Gulliver’s insights was: in looking close up at skin pores and hairs, there are no beautiful women! The closer you look, what we consider beauty disappears. Now I LOVE to look close up at natural things, including the skin, blood, bone, anything. It reveals a world of intricate workings, supporting amazing processes. Truly beautiful! But, when I teach human biology, I usually have a different reaction to these close up looks: one of disgust. Reality is better revealed with a microscope and fiber optics. What we see on the outside is truly illusory. Yet for anyone to be alive is miraculous and beautiful beyond compare. Even if a nose is misshapen.
2. Ghandi famously said that our value as a society can be measured by how we treat those among us who weakest. Surely that includes those who are blind and lame, or misshapen. The ability to recognize God’s image, in these folk is most crucial of all. To cast them as intrinsically inferior, only worsens prejudice against them.
3. One of the most profound gifts of Genesis is the understanding that human beings are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image. I explored these words for almost 2 decades with third graders in Hebrew school. Does this mean, I ask them, that God looks like people, with a bellybutton and eyebrows and fingernails? This makes them pause & think, and most conclude: that’s silly! It is not our physical appearance which is divine, but our insides, our spark, our creativity, our capacity to love and decisions to care. That is divine. Look deep into the eyes of a friend, I direct. See it there, that spark? That’s what God looks like. Not on the outside, but the goodness and love within. That’s the valuable part, though admittedly difficult to judge sometimes. It’s hard to judge because folks lie, or we don’t get to know them very well…. it’s so much easier to judge the outside!
Blindness: I know some very beautiful blind people. I myself was born with very poor vision in one eye. If not for modern eyewear I would certainly have “weak eyes” like Leah. Or perhaps I do: to maximize vision in my strong eye, the other turned in, giving me a less than”perfect” appearance. Dealing with a flawed appearance is a part of who I am. Consider this: true blindness is to look, but not understand. In fact Torah often warns us not to follow our eyes, and prostituting ourselves for what we see. We see suffering, but ignore it. We don’t use our eyes to weep for others. Instead we are urged to LISTEN!
Yet, I’ve found 3 reasons to agree with the ban of Cohanim.
1. How does that person feel about their deformity: are they angry, insecure, resentful? Do they blame God, or themselves, or their parents, or….? Perhaps that emotion is the true location of their flaw?
2. I needed to look deeper: what is the reason that someone is blind or lame or deformed? Sometimes it is a birth defect, sometimes it is due to accident, sometimes due to violence of human against another. Thalidamide, agent orange, radiation – all of these cause mutations, and therefore birth defects. Certainly not the child’s fault, but perhaps not things we should be messing around with! War takes limbs, and eyes. Violence distorts the human form divine. A lack of respect for these gifts, and a willingness to sacrifice the wholeness of our young men and women in battle, or ourselves or others, results in deformity and death. Or perhaps there are those who are broken, but nobody has cared enough, or there is poverty that’s prevented “fixing” them. I read an incredibly moving account in Scientific American this past summer about an MIT Dr. named Pawan Sinha . Returning to India following the death of his mother, he reached for a handful of coins from his Mom’s charity box to honor her. On his busy way, his car stopped at a light. There he was beset by a mother with two blind children. The lives of blind kids in India is brutal and short. These young boys were blind from cataracts! Easily and cheaply corrected, these boys could be given vision. Yet he almost didn’t see them. An MIT scientist, he applied for a grant to correct children’s vision to study how we learn to see. One teen’s vision was restored with a $20 pair of glasses. ( See blindness above.) Perhaps this is the real shame, not fixing people.
3. What is inside eventually tells on the outside (although youth may hide it for awhile). And it’s true: people seem Physically uglier while being nasty to others! In the times I’ve spent entertaining in assisted living places, many of the elderly no longer think a check is needed on their behavior, and true selves come out, for ugliness or beauty. I think it was watching Reading Rainbow, with my daughters, that I saw four beautiful actresses demonstrate how the “ugliness” of the stepsisters was portrayed simply by giving reign to the emotions of the character. The beautiful actress transformed herself magically to an ugly stepsister!
After all this, I find myself with a radical conclusion: Perhaps this verse of Leviticus is a test – as Abraham was tested, to see if we would say to God: this eye-blinded person is insightful and therefore blessed with piercing vision, and this lame person’s kindness moves mountains, their weakness superficial, their strength enormous, so accept this beautiful person.
Musical comment for this blog is Fix You by Cold Play