This week’s Torah reading, concerned mainly with regulations governing the Temple service, forbids any member of the priestly caste with a physical deformity (e.g., lameness, blindness, or a lazy eye) from performing the sacrificial rites, although he is nonetheless eligible to a share in tithes. Reflecting on the sharp discordance between this law and modern sensibilities, William Herlands writes:
It’s hard to imagine that the same God who is venerated by the Psalmist as “the father of orphans, the champion of widows” would reject the ritual service of [a disfigured priest]. Indeed, Moses is referred to as having “uncircumcised lips,” which the midrash . . . explains is a physical disability that made it difficult for him to speak. Yet Moses served God with unparalleled intimacy, and the Talmud states that God initially desired that he be the first High Priest.
Perhaps we can approach this tension by examining a parallel law with respect to animal sacrifice. In Leviticus 22 the Torah forbids sacrifices of disabled or disfigured animals [referred to with the same Hebrew term used to describe disqualified priests]. . . . The Torah fears that people will view sacrifice as a means of ridding themselves of a burdensome beast. Left to market forces alone, people would bring sacrifices from old cows that cannot produce milk or injured goats that cannot be sold at market.
Similarly the Torah is concerned that without a clear place in society, people may relegate the disabled to the Temple. The disfigured were an unsettling enigma to ancient (and even modern) eyes. We can imagine the desire to remove them from the community and hide them away in the sanctuary, assuaging our lingering guilt with the thought that their tasks are sanctified. . . .
Instead, the Torah requires us to embrace the disabled into society.