This week’s Sedra (once my barmitzvah portion) is packed with 74 commandments, 27 positive and 47 prohibitive. Verses 22:9-12 are an interesting series of commandments about separation – such as not sowing your vineyard with mixed species, not ploughing with an ox and a donkey, and not wearing a mixture of wool and linen.
These verses may simply be good farming practice. But how can we interpret seemingly irrational laws? One can surmise that an ox is much stronger than a donkey so they would not work well together. Also, since the ox chews the cud, it may appear to be eating constantly and causing distress to the donkey. Perhaps this is sensitivity to animals? In a wider sense, not ploughing with mixed animals could allude to teamwork in general between mixed groups of animals or even humans working on a project.
Judaism is full of separation. In the Creation story we have light from dark, day from night, upper from lower firmament, greater light from lesser light. Shabbat is a separate day in the week on a new spiritual footing. Chaggim are once again separate and special times. The word ‘Hebrew’ itself is said to be derived from the word ‘Ha’Ivri’ meaning “from the other side” (referring to Abraham).
As Rabbi Sacks z’’l taught, the word Kodesh (Holy) also means ‘separate’.
It means not planting your field with different kinds of seed, not crossbreeding your livestock or wearing clothes made of a forbidden mixture of wool and linen–or as we would put it nowadays, respecting the integrity of the environment. It means not conforming with whatever happens to be the idolatry of the time – and every age has its idols. It means being honest in business, doing justice, treating your employees well, and sharing your blessings (in those days, parts of the harvest) with others.
Above all, “Be holy” means, “Have the courage to be different.” That is the root meaning of kadosh in Hebrew. It means something distinctive and set apart. “Be holy for I the Lord your G-d am holy” is one of the most counter-intuitive sentences in the whole of religious literature. How can we be like G-d? He is infinite, we are mortal. Yet, says the Torah, in one respect we can be.
To be holy means to bear witness to the presence of God in our lives. To be Jewish means to live in the conscious presence of the God we can’t see but can sense as the force within ourselves urging us to be more courageous, just, and generous than ourselves. That’s what Judaism’s rituals are about: reminding us of the presence of the Divine.
Every individual on earth has an ethnicity. But only one people was ever asked collectively to be holy. That, to me, is what it is to be a Jew.