“No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer God’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his God.” (Lev. 21:20)
Last week I was lucky enough to get to spend a lot of time with my eight-year-old in and around a swimming pool. As a result, I’m re-attuned to the idea of physical “perfection” — and keenly aware of all the ways I miss that imagined mark.
The kids in the pool swam and splashed, turned somersaults under water, and whooped as they slid down the water slides, all without any visible anxiety about their bodies. I can’t remember feeling so free in my own skin. I’m always aware of my body, and there’s always judgment: this part is too big and that part is too small, and I can chronicle every flaw from my crown to my toes.
Contemporary American culture is rife with messages about what our bodies “should” look like. And when one’s body fails to live up to the standard set by movie stars and magazines, it’s easy to slip into low-key self-loathing. Nothing dramatic, just a constant buzz of negative body-talk.
Maybe it manifests as envy of someone else’s body, or maybe it manifests as negativity about someone else’s body. Either way, the internal broadcast is damaging because it partakes in a judgment paradigm.
In the Torah portion Emor, in the book of Leviticus, we read that physical defects disqualified a priest from holy service. Torah lists a variety of “defects” that disqualified one from the priesthood, including broken or crushed limbs, blindness, a limb too short or too long — even a scar. Temple service demanded perfection. The animals we offered on the altar also needed to be perfect. The slightest blemish disqualified an animal from being sacrificed.
Our ancestors believed that only something “perfect” was fit to be given to God — whether as an offering, or as the one who facilitated the offering. Reading those words now, I’m struck by how neatly they align with the negativity we’re taught to feel about our bodies. Only someone “perfect” will be desirable, says the toxic siren song of American culture. Only someone “perfect” will be wanted, will be cherished, will be blessed with companionship on life’s journey.
I want to reject that song, although doing so isn’t easy. It takes work to proclaim a different truth.
The first step is embracing what I am, instead of wishing I were otherwise. I don’t look like an eighteen-year-old, because I’m not — I’m in my forties. I don’t look like a movie star who works out with a personal trainer every day, because I’m not — I’m a divorced mom who makes it to the gym when life permits. My belly isn’t perfectly flat — it’s silvered with stretch marks from my pregnancy. This is my body, and I want to learn how to appreciate it instead of demeaning it.
In the eyes of the One Who enlivens us all, these “imperfections” don’t make me any less beautiful. In the eyes of my friends, the same is true. And anyone whom I might date will see me through the loving eyes of a friend — otherwise they’re not worthy of me.
I don’t know how Aaron (the first High Priest) and his children felt about Torah’s insistence on physical perfection. But today, whether that message comes from Torah or from the pictures in a magazine, the aspiration to “perfection” doesn’t serve us well.
Imagine what it would feel like to relax into a swimming pool without any self-hatred or shame. Without any cruel internal messages about taking up too much space, without any part of you feeling too small or too big or wrong in any way. For most of us I suspect that sounds like moshiachtzeit, “messianic time.” It’s a pleasure too extraordinary to be imagined. That’s not the world we live in.
But kids live in that messianic headspace and heartspace until we teach them otherwise. My son dances around the room naming body parts with glee: he hasn’t yet learned to put himself down. Children are naturally in touch with wonder, with the miraculous, with the sacred. And our bodies are wondrous, and miraculous, and sacred. We teach ourselves to see them as flawed and imperfect and unlovable, but we don’t have to live that way.
As ee cummings wrote, “Down we forgot as up we grew.” What would it be like to let go of our grown-up sense of everything we’ve learned to resent about our bodies’ imperfections, and instead revel in the wonder of having bodies exactly as they are? What would it be like to know that we are seen, and we are loved, exactly as we are — “imperfections” and all?
Since 2003, Rachel Barenblat has blogged as The Velveteen Rabbi. Ordained as a rabbi and spiritual director, she serves Congregation Beth Israel and is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. Her books of poetry include 70 faces: Torah poems (Phoenicia, 2011) and Texts to the Holy (Ben Yehuda, 2018).