Friday, May 8, 2009

Thank You, Manny!

Manny Ramirez has done me a great favor. No, I don't condone his use of prohibited substances, which resulted in his recent suspension for 50 games. But now, thanks to Manny, I have a better understanding of this week's portion, Emor.

One of the more controversial aspects of this portion has to do with the qualifications of the priesthood. According to Leviticus 21, in order to be able to lead the communal ritual, the priest has to be blemish-free: " one with a small defect shall draw near, no one who is blind or lame or has a limb too short or long."

Many a bar/bat mitzvah student has thrown down the gauntlet to me on this subject, questioning why disabilities should disqualify someone from the priesthood. Priests had to be perfect human specimens, representing the best of who we can be. They had to be morally perfect too. I've had interesting discussions over the years as to whether our Presidents would be disqualified from running if they had disabilities - and few believe that FDR could run for office now, in a wheelchair, in this age of TV, and win.

It is important to note that other types of Jewish leaders, ancient and modern, could remain leaders despite impairment. Elsewhere (including last week's portion), the Torah expresses great sensitivity to those with disabilities, imploring us not to place a stumbling block before the blind, for instance, or to insult the deaf.

So what's the Torah up to here?

In a strange way, it seems to be telling us that, since only priests can be "perfect," the rest of us can be forgiven our flaws, both physical and moral. Priests are seen more as divine instruments than human beings (although they are human), following the ritual perfectly but not demonstrating or even needing any other leadership skills.

The closest thing we have today to a priest would not be a politician but an athlete. Athletes represent the best in us - the Olympic ideal of faster, stronger, higher. They look better than us. They earn astronomical salaries. They live lives of glamour, always on the road. They are surrounded by trophies - some of whom they marry. And they are the gladiators who perform our sacred rituals: the killing of the bull in Spain, the first pitch of the Spring and the last touchdown of winter.

If athletes are the priests of our collective rituals, we want them to be perfect too. When they aren't, when they abuse that trust, we can sometimes forgive them, because we are a forgiving species.

But the game is forever tainted. There is nothing that can remove that.

So now a generation who grew up worshipping the likes of the Rocket, Barry, A-Rod and Manny - people so iconic that they don't even need last names - has lost faith and become cynical. If the best of our best, our purest specimens, are tainted, it diminishes the rest of us even more.

Priests could not have a blemish - in Hebrew a "MOOM" derived from a word meaning "black," or "stained." When we look at it from the purely moral perspective, such stains are especially hard to remove. Before Manny and A-Rod can reenter the pantheon, they've got to head to the cleaners. Hall of fame voters are becoming as intolerant as the author of Leviticus.

In light of what these players have done, I now understand the unyielding nature of the priestly image. If someone is going to be held up as a paragon of perfection, that person had at least better be responsible for what substances he ingests.

Instead, Manny was just being Manny.

For which I thank him.

1 comment:

Nomad said...

now that Manny has half the season off he can go home to his private island and wallow while he sips iced tea and works on his tan