Mum. That's the word. That's Mem,Shuruk,Mem Sofit - M- "oo" - m. It means blemish or defect. It is used in this parasha and some later ones to refer to blemished animals which were unfit to be sacrificed. But here in this parasha, it is also used in a closely connected series of verses (17, 18, 21, 23) to refer to a physical blemish or defect of a human being, i.e. blindness, lameness, broken or odd length arms or legs, hunchbacks, people with growths in their eyes, people with boil scars, or scurvy, or crushed testicles. Any kohanim, any priest who has such a defect may not make the food offering, or go behind the curtain that separates the altar from the rest of the sanctuary.
If you've followed the text, you'll notice I left one defect out. In Hebrew, the word is Dak. The meaning of this word is uncertain, though it seems to mean thin, shrunk or withered-in reference to a human being. While the Sifra to Leviticus believes it is connected to a defect of the eye as referred to in the following words of the pasuk, the JPS translation is "dwarf."
Those of you who have met me know that I am only 4'-10" tall. Although technically I am what is called "normal short" I am on the extreme end of that range. I don't have most of the usual determining characteristics to be considered a dwarf or midget. Nevertheless, my small size does have its problems. Believe me. Physical limitations. Even subtle discrimination-intentional and unintentional. Imagine, for a moment, what it feels like to always having to be looking upwards to talk to people, how it feels to always be surrounded by people taller than you. It's a problem that can be dealt with-but it IS a problem.
It troubles me to think that, were I a kohen, and, Gd willing, the Beit HaMikdash were rebuilt, I would probably be considered "mum" because I am "dak." In fact, it troubles me greatly that that our Torah labels human beings as defective at all. Why, if we are all b'tzelem Elokim, would Gd refuse the offering of any human, and especially any kohen?
In recent parashiot, those hotly debated passages regarding homosexuality have raised the usual stirred and emotional discussions. I'm not going to discuss those issues, but it does seem to me than an awful lot of discussion takes place about those passages, yet others who are discriminated against, or labeled "defective" by the Torah seem to get overlooked. Ha-ha, I made a funny. The little short guy made a joke about getting "overlooked."
Well, it's not funny. One who is gay or lesbian often cannot be identified without their own open self-identification of their sexual preference. But one with a "defect," whether it is a disease or condition or accident that put them in a wheel chair, or caused them to lose a limb, or a genetic factor that caused their body to be dwarfish or disfigured, or have a harelip, or develop rosacea, or even one like myself, who is simply extremely short...our "defects" are out in the open. No avoiding them. There is no "don't ask, don't tell" for us. We are discriminated against. And we even discriminate against each other.
Now, please don't misunderstand. It's not a matter of "my defect's worse than yours..." I am not suggesting that gays and lesbians have it easy - for they certainly do not in our society, which discriminates against them, openly and secretly.
But in our rush to be inclusive, who are we leaving out? When I was in second grade, everyone in the class got a chance to put the American flag into it's holder. When my turn came, the teacher passed me by. So I marched right up to her, took the flag from her hands, pull her chair out from behind her desk, moved it over to the blackboard, climbed up on it, and put the flag in its holder. I don't recall what, if any, repercussions there were from this incident, but I do vividly remember what I did, and how angry I was at being skipped over because of my "defect."
While I don't like to think of my height as a defect, it does present real problems. I can be the victim of discrimination, openly or secretly. There are some things I can't do, some tasks that require special effort, or tools or aids. The same is true, and more so, for those who have far more challenging and difficult issues to deal with than I do. (I will not say that I count my blessing every day that I don't have some other "defect" to deal with. That's an attitude that prima facie causes us to discriminate against others who are "less fortunate." What a negative way to think of the other. Not very Buberian at all. Other people, whatever their challenges, their distinguishing or limiting characteristics, are human beings, deserved to be treated as other "Thous.")
I think that all of us want but these simple things: to be treated fairly, not be discriminated against, and to have a place in society where our challenges are not challenges at all.
You know, it troubles me a bit perhaps, that there are synagogues that actively work to be a place where gays and lesbians are not discriminated against, yet, at the same time, there are many more synagogues with only the most minimal handicap accessibility (usually, the bare minimum the code requires, our congregational boards often being good stewards of money, but poor stewards of Gd's mitzvot.) It's not a matter of doing one or the other. It's a matter of doing it all. Inclusivity cannot be selectively inclusive.
I am saddened that it appears Gd instructed us to exclude the defective from certain priestly services. I hope that there is a better or alternate understanding of the plain meaning of the text here, and I pray that it can be found.
So, for all the mumim and mumot everywhere, the iveyr, the piseyach, gibeyn, and dak, my prayer that their troubles and afflictions will be heard, and that our synagogues and homes and schools and institutions will strive as much to include them as it has strived to include others.
©2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
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