Yom Rishon, 1 Tammuz 5777
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Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah--Emor

I was an athlete when I was young. Of course, back in those long ago days, we knew next to nothing about the long term effect of getting one’s “bell rung.” Football helmet padding was only becoming sophisticated. We never heard of post concussion “protocols.” Once the world stopped spinning before one’s eyes, he was sent back into the game. When one’s performance suffered after such an incident, coaches chalked it up to “fear of getting back on the horse” syndrome.
We now understand that getting one’s “bell rung” is a concussion. We also know that multiple concussions lead to brain disease. Specifically, the brain disease is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. For generations, we knew that boxers suffered from a dementia called “dementia pugilistica” (boxer’s dementia). We now understand that it is not just the repeated punches to the head, but we find the progressively degenerative disease impacting the lives of all athletes who take part in contact sports, members of the military, stunt performers in Hollywood, and others. Effectively, the brain begins to deterirorate at a pace faster than any organic decline. The impact of these repeated injuries essentially robs humans of meaningful lives. Yes, the sports world has responded with better equipment and tighter protocols and rules. Yes, the game will continue, but, we pray, in a more safe environment (even as the athletes playing the game are bigger and providing even more impacting blows than ever before).

This week’s Torah portion (Lev. 21:16-24) makes it clear that anyone with a disability is barred from serving in the priesthood. The text devotes eight verses to delineating the types of disqualifying defects. Assuredly, broken limbs and physical and spiritual deformities lead the list, but having “too long” eye brows also disqualifies a priest. Candidly, reading the list, I am not sure who is physically symmetrical and pure enough to serve … in any capacity. One might argue that the sages wrote it this way to make bringing animals to the altar impossible. No priest qualified to offer it. If there is no appropriate priest then there can be no offering … end of the sacrificial cult tradition.

However, we have a text in the Mishnah (Yoma 2:1-2) that tells the story of two young priests racing to the altar to serve. In an effort to gain the advantage, one pushed the other off the steps, causing the victim’s leg to break. From that moment on, the victim’s entire life changed as he was stripped of any right and authority to live his destiny as a Priest. With this injury the entire rules of Priestly service changed. To avoid any future injury and disqualification, young priests were assigned dates to serve, as opposed to vying to be the first one to the top. This new rule also ensured that those possessing less physical prowess had an equal chance to serve. So, while it is clear to me that the Torah text seeks to undo the sacrificial rituals, the ancient sages saw in the text much deeper admonitions. For starters the rabbis affirmed that one’s physical stature was not the defining factor one’s talent and spiritual capacity.

More to my earlier point, though, the sages argued that when our behaviors disqualify someone else from being able to fulfill his/her life destiny, some action has to be taken. We are not just speaking of illegal activity that needs to be reined in. Often the rules in place allow for the abuses. The Priests outlawed their previously accepted practice of racing to the top of the altar. While there are rules in sports to prevent injury (including the mandatory proper protective gear) many traumatic injuries happen from legal blocks and tackles. New rules keep coming out to protect athletes from injuries and re-injuries. However, these injuries, no different than with the Mishnaic priest, not only end people’s careers but destroy their lives.

All the more, these paradigms speak to the way we seek advantage over each other in the real world. Even when we play by the rules, we hurt people. We need to be careful … even within the rules of life’s engagement. How much more damage do we cause, when we disregard the rules. Ultimately, as a kingdom of priests (mamlechet kohanim), not one of us has greater authority or purity to stand over another’s offering to God or humanity. None of us qualifies to be “THE PRIEST” directing everyone else at the altar. Each of us has been injured and each of us is physically and spiritually asymmetrical. So, let’s keep working to find better ways in which to care for each other. Shabbat Shalom.