Individuality and Meaning
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
Adapted by Braha Bender
Shatnez is a Hebrew word used in modern Israeli society to refer to any sort of strange combination of circumstances, any and all rebellion against the norms of the world. However, the source of the term is in the Torah where it is assigned to the prohibition against spinning threads of wool and threads of linen into one garment: “And a garment that is a mixture of combined fibers (sha’atnez) shall not come upon you” (Leviticus 19:19).
At first glance, the biblical prohibition against shatnez doesn’t appear to have any appreciable meaning. It doesn’t appear comparable to any of the obviously socially or ethically relevant Torah laws such as, “Love your fellow as yourself,” for example. What does the fibers used to make a pair of trousers have to do with divine standards of morality? Strangely enough, though, the mitzvah (commandment) to “love your fellow as yourself” appears immediately before the mitzvah to avoid shatnez in Leviticus 19:18.
There is a broad misconception concerning the reasoning behind Torah commandments. To the naked eye, it would seem that Torah commandments come to solve particular social problems, such as the human tendencies towards selfishness or greed, for example. However, that perception is mistaken. Torah commandments and all the legal ramifications emerging from them are like a map depicting spiritual reality. Take one step off the path and you’ll fall. That remains true regardless of the meaning -- or lack thereof -- that any given individual assigns to the commandments. Whether any given mitzvah seems logical, ethical, or not at all, Torah is a blue-print of reality and the mitzvos guide us to the fulfillment of our ultimate human potential whether we fully understand them or not.
Certainly we are commanded to study and appreciate the incredible depth behind each and every aspect of Torah, especially the mitzvos in all their magnificent detail. However, human perception changes from generation to generation and from individual to individual. The meaning one generation finds in a particular mitzvah may be different than the meaning another generation finds in a particular mitzvah. Meaning is the emotion evoked when implementing the mitzvah, and this changes from person to person, from generation to generation, and from situation to situation. The claim that a mitzvah must be performed because of a particular reason locks it into a prison of changeable human perception and clips its wings.
Because of this, the Jews at Sinai committed to observe all Torah commandments even if they were entirely unintelligible. Conversely, no matter how sublimely meaningful we may find a particular mitzvah, we must remember that the mitzvos mean infinitely more than we can ever completely understand. Above the logic or fashion of any particular era, the mitzvos of G-d’s Torah are eternal.
This reasoning explains why the verse describing the mitzvah to love others as oneself is concluded by the statement, “I am Hashem.” It is not enough to follow this beautiful credo to love others as well as oneself just because it makes sense. The Torah commands us to follow this commandment because it is a commandment -- an opportunity to connect not only with ourselves and other people, but also with G-d. The mitzvah to avoid shatnez comes right afterwards, teaching us that both of these mitzvos have the same foundation.
As it so happens, our particular generation may find the mitzvah of shatnez particularly relatable. In addition to many the troubles and crises plaguing our times, our generation is blessed with the unique perspective afforded by ecological crisis – nature’s revenge for our callously upsetting the balance between its various components.
The secret of shatnez lies in the opening words of the verse: “My decrees you shall observe; you shall not mate your animal with another species, you shall not plant your field with mixed seed; and a garment that is a mixture of combined fibers shall not come upon you.” (ibid.)
In contrast to the usual order of words, the Torah states the object of the sentence, “my decrees,” before the verb, “you shall observe.” Our sages explain that this unusual wording is harkening back to the verses describing the creation of the world: “Let the earth sprout vegetation… yielding fruit each after its kind” (Genesis 1:11).
“We see the grass,” says Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, “the greenery sprouting out of the ground, and we hear the decree of ‘after its own kind’ that rules all vegetation. Every species acts only for its own, and develops only within the boundaries set for its kind… the same Divine law that rules the entire organic world, decrees that when a species is mixed with a species not of its kind, the result is kila’yim: the two species are kalu – closed – to each other. They do not connect and do not mate. Each species reserves its powers for its own. Only the arbitrary behavior of man forces upon them an unnatural – and unlawful – connection.’
This lesson, integrated through the mitzvah of shatnez, can mean more to us than perhaps any generation up until our time. Observing this mitzvah by ensuring that there is no forbidden mixture of species even in our clothing educates us to control our relationship with nature, to develop the awe and respect that the laws of the universe and their Lawmaker deserve, and to maintain an awareness that the universe is not there to serve our arbitrary desires.