“Striving for Perfection”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Emor, the theme of perfection is repeated many times in several related contexts.

In Leviticus 21:17, G-d speaks to Moses instructing him to say to Aaron: “Eesh me’za’rah’chah l’do’ro’tam ah’sher yee’hee’yeh vo moom, lo yik’rav l’hak’reev leh’chem Eh’lo’kahv,” Any man of your [priestly] offspring throughout their generations in whom there will be a blemish shall not come near to offer the food of his G-d.

Again, in Leviticus 22:20, when speaking of bringing sacrifices, scripture states: “Any [sacrifice] in which there is a blemish, you shall not offer, for it will not be favorable for you.” The very next verse, Leviticus 22:21, underscores the need for perfection: “It shall be perfect to be accepted, no blemish shall there be therein.”

In a note on Leviticus 22:17-25, the ArtScroll bible explains that “just as the Cohanim with bodily blemishes are not permitted to perform the Divine service, so [too] blemished animals are invalid as offerings.” Citing the Sforno (Italian Torah commentator 1470-1550), the ArtScroll commentary explains that G-d desires spiritual and moral perfection from human beings and physical perfection from the offerings. Despite the fact that a blemished animal may be more valuable than an unblemished one, it is not acceptable, since G-d does not measure perfection by monetary value.

Since, very often, the purpose of bringing an offering was to atone for sin, it was hoped that the sinner would emerge from the Temple after the sacrificial ritual, cleansed and purified. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that every part of the sacrificial experience strives for perfection and that the priest at the altar, as well as the animal that is sacrificed, be as pure and as perfect as could be.

Nachmanides (Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) points out that in addition to physical perfection, the regulations regarding the sacrifice mandate spiritual perfection as well. Not only must the animal that is offered be physically healthy and robust, but even the thoughts of those who perform the sacrificial rite are expected to be pure and proper. If, at the time of the actual sacrifice, the donor has the intention of consuming the flesh of the animal in a forbidden area that is outside the confines of the Temple, or to eat it after the time limit for that particular sacrifice has expired, the sacrifice is disqualified.

The author of the Sefer Ha’Chinuch (the classic work on the 613 commandments, their rationale and their regulations by an anonymous author in 13th century Spain) suggests that the reason for the disqualification of the sacrifice is that a person who brings an imperfect animal compromises with his conscience. What disqualifies the offering is that the donor has approached G-d with motives that are less than perfect.

According to rabbinic law it is not only the physical imperfection of the Priests or the animals or the intentions of the Priests or the donors that disqualify an offering. The Talmud points out that, in fact, anything associated with the sacrifice that is inferior renders the offering unfit. Hence, defective wines, oils, flour, wood and incense that are used in sacrificial offerings disqualify the offerings. Clearly, Jewish law is “obsessed” with bringing a most perfect offering, in the most perfect dwelling place (the Temple), to a most perfect Creator.

What relevance could there possibly be to those of us in the 21st century who no longer have a Temple or offer sacrifices? Interestingly, based on the bold message of these biblical verses in parashat Emor, Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) exhorts all Jews to present their best efforts, not only in worship, but most importantly in areas of tzedakah and philanthropy. When feeding the hungry, the best food must be offered. When clothing the impoverished, the finest clothes from one’s wardrobe should be selected. When building a house of worship, the structure should be no less impressive than one’s own home and should rival and exceed its spaciousness and elegance.

King Solomon, in Ecclesiastes 7:20, underscores the impossibility of a human being achieving perfection, when he writes: “Kee adam ayn tzaddik b’ah’retz ah’sher ya’ah’seh tov v’lo yech’tah,” For there is no perfectly righteous person upon earth who does only good and never sins. But this surely should not discourage any human being from seeking and striving for perfection.

The frequent and repetitive emphasis on perfection found in parashat Emor should not intimidate or discourage us. It should rather serve to encourage each of us to be the best that we can be, and to always strive for more.

May you be blessed.