The prohibition for blemished Kohanim (Ba’alei Mum) to perform the Avodah in the Beit HaMikdash presents a philosophical difficulty. What is deficient about a blemished Kohein that Hashem would prohibit him from serving? Is it possible that one who possesses the proper priestly lineage could be unworthy of doing the Avodah? As this prohibition constitutes the word of Hashem, it behooves us to examine it and analyze what lies at its core.
There is one school of thought which takes the medieval approach to external, congenital blemishes. It states that such blemishes are a manifestation of an internal evil characteristic or defective personality trait. Accordingly, a Kohein with an external blemish must also have something wrong with him internally. Although difficult from a modern perspective (technology has both expanded the understanding of why disabilities occur, as well as broadened opportunities for those who suffer from them), this approach at least explains a perspective on why blemished Kohanim cannot serve in the Mikdash.
Rambam and Sefer HaChinuch present a different approach regarding this prohibition. In their view, Hashem has no biases, and blemished Kohanim are not deficient in His eyes. In the eyes of man, however, blemishes suppress the physical beauty of the Kohein and suppress one’s ability to reflect on the Kohein’s spiritual greatness. The purpose of the Mikdash is to elicit spiritual growth in those who spend time within its walls. People will find it easier to do so when their environs and representatives are aesthetically pleasing. Similarly, the Kohein Gadol has to be handsome and the Mikdash has to be stunning, with gold adorning almost every surface. Hashem doesn’t value gold more than any other metal, but man does. It is man’s flaws, not Hashem’s, that cause the need for unblemished Kohanim. Similarly, all offerings had to be without blemish so that man would recognize their true spiritual value rather than be distracted by their physical ugliness.
Rav Shlomo Kluger presents a different vantage point. Any person with a blemish or disability is undoubtedly the subject of Hashem’s Midat HaDin (Attribute of Judgment). It is no coincidence that the name Elokim, which signifies Midat HaDin, has a Gematria of eighty six, the same Gematria as Mum. Whether a punishment or simply Hashem concealing his Midat HaRachamim (Attribute of Mercy), a blemished Kohein is a living embodiment of Hashem’s Middat HaDin.
The Kohein, however, is meant to be the living embodiment of Hashem’s Midat HaRachamim; he effects atonement and offers Korbanot which bring us closer to Hashem. He is also responsible for bringing about peace. One who embodies Hashem’s Midat HaDin should not also represent the public for tasks related to Midat HaRachamim.
This would explain why the Pasuk states, “Ish MiZaracha LeDorotam Asher Yehiyeh Bo Mum Lo Yikrav LeHakriv Lechem Elokav,” “A man from your progeny [Kohanim], for all generations, who shall have a blemish shall not approach to offer the bread of his Lord” (VaYikra 21:17). A blemished Kohein, the embodiment of Midat HaDin, is not fit to offer the “bread of Elokim,” since the purpose of that bread is to transform the Midat HaDin symbolized by “Elokim” into Midat HaRachamim.
In a sense, perhaps, the prohibition of a blemished Kohein serving in the Mikdash actually represents an act of compassion on Hashem’s part. Hashem understands that the recipient of Midat HaDin may find it difficult to have the best intentions for others. We know that Machashavah (thought and intention) plays a central role in all aspects of the Avodah. In fact, Pigul which invalidates a Korban, arises from improper intentions on the part of the Kohein. A Kohein with a Mum would have an especially hard time keeping a proper mindset when offering Korbanot for a Jew who has never suffered any sort of blemish. Such a Jew cannot fully connect with his Kohein representative.
Whatever the reason for the invalidation of a blemished Kohein, we can use this precept as an opportunity to increase our awareness of the physical, psychological, and emotional distress that a physical disability can cause a person.