Like the kohen, view the whole person &mdash the blemish and the light

Rosh Hodesh
Leviticus 12:1-15:33;
Numbers 28:9-15
Isaiah 66:1-24

“It’s not fair,” complained the bar mitzvah boy as he came into my office. “Why do I have to get Tazria-Metzora for my parshah? What am I supposed to say about it? ‘Shabbat shalom, my torah reading is about pus?'”

He grimaced, I sympathized. Tazria-Metzora was to be my bar mitzvah parshah too, until my father decided that he’d rather have me learn something else.

“So, what do you think you’re going to teach us about this parshah,” I asked.

“Bottom line,” he said, “I think we all need to learn to be like the kohen, the priest.”

And there you have it. It is almost inevitable. Put a 13-year-old in the same room with a difficult text and he or she might hit upon a huge Jewish idea, a profound spiritual truth.

Most of us know very little about the function of the kohanim in the Torah. Having lived without a Temple and a functional priesthood for the past 2000 years, we have a difficult time discerning the magnitude of priestly function.

As the officiants in the Temple, it was the role of the kohen to bridge the gap between the individual and the Divine. By sacrificing the korban (from the Hebrew word, karov, meaning to come close) the priest brought the seeker into an intimacy with God.

Unlike rabbis, the priest spoke very little. Instead, he used the embodied behavior of ritual to realign one’s physical and spiritual being. The ritual centered on the primal and the uncanny, touching the unconscious and effecting transformation.

The priest was a rodef shalom — a pursuer, not just of peace, but of wholeness. Enabled to see each wound, personal blemish and pain, the priest helped the sufferer touch the ineffable and become whole again.

Nowhere is this priestly mystery more apparent than in this week’s Torah portion. “When a person has a skin affliction, he shall be brought to the priest.” (13:9)

Reb Menachem Mendel of Kosov comments that the priest was able to feel the affliction even before he saw it. The priest had heightened powers of empathy. He could feel when something was wrong.

The Kosover continues: “So, too, it should be among loving friends. One immediately feels the pain of the other and is able to repair the suffering.”

But intuiting the suffering of others is not sufficient for the Torah. The priest must see the affliction.

And not just the affliction but the afflicted as well: “The priest shall examine the affliction on the skin of his body … and the priest shall see him …” (13:3)

Rabbi Yosef Yehuda Tronk of Kutna teaches, “from here we learn that when a person is examined, one should not see him only in his limitation, with all his blemishes.

“Rather, one must see the whole person, his blemishes together with his good qualities.”

The priest is required to see what is whole and healthy about the person, not just what is afflicted.

These teachings resonate with the mystical belief that within the body, there is a light that contains our true self. Our inner light, essence of the Divine, shines through the very flesh of our bodies.

To see the body with all its assorted blemishes, to know the psyche with its attendant and constantly percolating troubling thoughts and emotions, is only to know the surface.

The priest is required to see it all. Ve-ra’ahu ha-cohen, “the priest shall see him,” in total — the blemish, the suffering, the goodness, the light, the essence. The priest sees it all, and accepts it all.

Could we, too, learn to see other people that way? Could we, softening our judgments, see people in their wholeness and their holiness?

My bar mitzvah student was right. We all need to learn to be like the kohen.

Rabbi Lavey Derby teaches Kabbalah and Chassidism at Congregation

Kol Shofar in Tiburon.