This was my D'var Torah at Shabbat morning services last Saturday, May 13.
At our synagogue's most recent Ritual Committee meeting, Mike Harris gave the D’var Torah and he raised a question about the opening sections of Parashat Emor. He noted that the Kohen (priest) performing the ancient sacrifices is disqualified if he is not a perfect physical specimen. He can't be blind or have a broken arm, or have one of his legs shorter than the other. And Mike’s question was why, since these physical characteristics have nothing to do with whether or not someone is the image of God,Tzelem Elohim.
The first-level answer to this is that the Torah imagines that the Mishkan, the Sanctuary, and everything that has to do with it, should look perfect. It should give off to everyone the look of perfection. Everything has to be measured just right, the animals have to be the very best of their kind, all the procedures should be carried out methodically and the same way each time. This is a way of fighting off the chaos of the world and of life.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a Kohen who has a scar. But the Torah suggests that we need this one place where we look up and what we see is orderly, and that physical order gives us confidence that there is a moral order as well. That’s essentially the basic philosophy of the whole middle section of the Torah, from after the Golden Calf through Leviticus. Since the world looks jumbled up, we need to look at something that is not.
But the Kohen’s job was not only to be a symbol. As we learned in the Haftarah, he was also out in the real world as a teacher and a judge and a leader. And the Torah knows that even a Kohen with two arms the same size and no cataracts couldn't possibly be perfect on the inside. So we read some weeks ago in the Torah how the Kohanim were supposed to dress when they were in their role.
There are a couple of parts of the Big'dei Kehuna, the garments of the priests, that are particularly beautiful. On his chest, over his heart, the Kohen would wear what is called the choshen mishpat, the breastplate of judgment or decision. It had twelve different kinds of precious stones, and on each stone was engraved the name of one of the tribes of the nation.
And on his forehead, he had an item very much like our Torah crowns today, with pomegranate decorations making noise whenever he was moving around. And connected to that there is a plate of pure gold engraved with the words Kodesh l’Adonai -- “sanctified for God.” Or it might indicate that the Kohen himself was a dedicated offering to God. This plate was connected to the rest of his headwear with a blue thread, just like our tzitzit -- in fact, the gold plate is called a tzitz.
The kohen needed these two things in order to be a leader, and especially when he was inside the holy place, in the place where people could maybe hear what he was doing but couldn't see him. He needed a reminder of the people he was serving when they were not in front of him. And he needed to be led wherever he was going with the words “dedicated to God.”
This reminds me of another one of my favorite Torah teachings about a different leader, the king. In the book of Devarim the Torah says that a king should commission for himself a personal Torah scroll, or write it himself. And it has to go with him at all times, particularly in war. To remind him that his power is subject to the law and to the guidance of the Torah. L’vilti rom l’vavo me-echav -- so his heart doesn’t become high or haughty over his brothers, the people.
Now if you think I’m talking about the president, you’re not exactly a rocket scientist. There is just no way to imagine right now that our nation’s leader walks with the words Kodesh l’Adonai on his head. When he is deep inside his place, his sanctum, he is not wearing a breastplate that carries a reminder of the many people and groups and regions that he is serving and representing. The people who can’t see him in there but can certainly hear him. Whatever you think of James Comey specifically, the president didn’t act this week like someone who was writing himself a book of the law to carry with him. There is just a deep disconnectedness, a deep selfishness.
We have to be able to come into the synagogue and describe moral reality the way it is. Sometimes things aren’t clear – but sometimes they are. When they are, though, it’s not enough just to describe it. We have to ask ourselves who we are in light of that, what we are supposed to do. It’s not enough to have a solid opinion, a reasonable interpretation of what’s going on, an idea you feel like posting. We are here to push farther.
So all week I’ve been asking myself the so-what question, the now-what question. And I want to recommend to you two things to do, two ways to move during this difficult moment we are in as a country.
The first suggestion goes back to the breastplate. The twelve precious stones, each one inscribed with the name of one of the tribes.
The choshen mishpat, as it was called in Hebrew, was about decisions and judgments. And we have to remind ourselves that whatever judgments we are making have to be rooted in an allegiance to all the groups that make up our society. We have to remind ourselves not to be selfish, ourselves, in our judgments . Not to make them just for ourselves, to feel satisfied about having the right opinion. Whatever decisions we make about actions we take in the community, or even words that we post in a forum, have to be rooted in our solidarity with groups that we don’t always see. With citizens and residents who are vulnerable, because of what we see and what we judge to be wrong.
If you have something to say, say it because persuading someone is going to matter, is going to help a group of people who deserve to have their name engraved on a precious stone.
The other thing that is so important right now is to look for leaders who really do exemplify the garments of the Kohen and the Torah carried by the king. It’s very hard for me right now to think about how my daughters’ views about leadership in society are being formed. Their teen years will be defined by this negative example. I want them, and I want all of us, to have the possibility of leaders who live as though they are wearing the twelve precious stones over their hearts.
Now especially, at the start of the Trump presidency, is when we have to work extra hard to find leaders worth following. To exercise our ability to follow good leadership.
I feel this way personally, even though I am at the same time pushing myself to be a better leader in our community. But people like me as well need leaders we can look up to, and whom we can trust and follow. I don’t have the luxury of just continuing to develop my own leadership. We need good leaders now.
The other day I had an experience that really crystallized this for me. I tell you from time to time about the One Greater Nashua coalition, and one of the people in the subgroup that I participate in is Latha Mangiputhi. She represents South Nashua in the state legislature, and she is an Indian-American. When she first ran for the legislature, she endured some opposition in her district rooted in bigotry. Latha has been a tireless voice, even as a member of the minority party in Concord as a Democrat. She works on economic opportunity for Indian-Americans and everyone, for students who come to study in Nashua and want to stay, on international business partnerships that could grow our state’s economy and replenish our aging workforce, on cultural awareness. She opens her home and she reaches out. She is fascinated by people, and she is relentless.
And Latha came into our meeting the other day and just unloaded about how despondent she felt, about how hard it is to carry on singlehandedly without enough support for things that are good not only for minority communities for but everyone. The petty prejudice, the putdowns, the sexism, the feeling that nothing is being learned and that social progress is too slow.
I know Latha some, and I’ve been worried about her over the past few months. She said these things with great emotion, and got up to leave. A couple of us followed her. The other person talked to her about small steps and trusting that we are all trying to do in this coalition, how we have to build our power little by little, all true things.
But what I realized is that we need to rely on people just like Latha who think big and are grounded in solidarity with people and who are relentless without being selfish. We need to admire these kinds of leaders. We need to give them strength. We need not just to be like them, to collaborate with them -- but to follow them. To trust them, to follow their lead, to take a chance on giving up our cynicism and our suspicion of leadership.
Good leaders, moral leadership that carries a Torah, devoted leaders who wear the names of their communities and other communities on their hearts -- they are precious stones right now. They are not just writing and teaching and speaking, but are in the guts of government and organizations. It is hard to be a leader in our country, a leader inside the workings of power. That’s about more than President Trump. He isn’t the cause of this. He is one of the manifestations of a reality in our country – that we are not making it safe for good leaders to lead us.
So every time we are self-satisfied that we can see through the President, we need to gather that energy and direct it toward the Lathas, toward the leaders we need.
It is up to us to make room for the leaders we need. We need people who strive toward the perfection that makes us believe we can stretch what is possible. And we need to recognize when we do see someone doing their best to lead with Kodesh l’Adonai above their eyes, and our names on their hearts.
May we, even today, start bringing precious stones to the true leaders our country so much needs.