We principally close out our consideration of the
mitzvot related to the general topic of “who we are to be in
sacred space” with a discussion of the Biblical idea of forbidden
mixtures. We will also look at the idea of naziriteship and what this odd way
of being and its associated practices might teach us about separation and
living out the sacred in the real world.
1. Read Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:9-11.
Leviticus 19: 19 You must keep my rules. Do not crossbreed your livestock, do not plant your field with two kinds of seed, and do not wear clothes made from two kinds of material.
Deuteronomy 22: 9 Don’t plant your vineyards with two types of seed; otherwise, the entire crop that you have planted and the produce of the vineyard will be unusable. 10 Don’t plow with an ox and a donkey together. 11 Don’t wear clothes that mix wool and linen together.
Q1. These verses in two different books of the Bible address similar concerns. What are they? Are there ways you think we might take these prohibitions too far? How? What might they mean at a deeper level, and how might they best inform our lives?
Maimonides wrote that these mitzvot essentially are understood to prohibit the sowing of a field with two kinds of seed, the sowing of (or eating or other using of) a vineyard sown with any other seed than grape, the mating of animals of different kinds, the working of two kinds of animals together, and the wearing of a garment made of both wool and linen.
A. This all sounds very odd to us. So, let’s look at possible surface meaning of these verses and then dig deep to see if we can find underlying value for our lives. Remember we’re studying these words in the context of the sacred, so I want you to keep that in mind as you explore your own thoughts and come up with possible explanations. In a moment, we’ll look at these separately, but let me ask this first question. What in the world do you think, generally, these mitzvot are about?
(One traditional view has been that these words teach us that we are not to interfere with God’s creation. Each kind was created for a purpose known and intended by the Divine. If we were to mix different kinds, thus creating a new kind, we would alter God’s plan and, in doing so, assume a role that belongs only to God.
A related idea has been that these mitzvot teach us to respect the integrity of all the elements of God’s creation. We should guard against mixing because we take away what is genuine and authentic from one kind when we mix it with another.)
B. However much we might agree with these principles and the concerns they reflect, how and in what ways, at least on the surface, might we push back against taking the mitzvot that far?
(First, might one argue that science (which, in some ways, is the study of God’s creation) teaches that certain mixing is in the natural order of things? Species are often changed over time by breeding, environment, and evolution.
Second, while there may be certain ideas made possible by modern technology that are out of bounds ethically and religiously (cloning, for example), aren’t there others that we generally would deem to be acceptable and indeed desirable? There are certainly examples of cross-breeding that most think have improved the quality of plants and animals and provided better sustenance and nutrition to people. Indeed mixing, generally, is a key strategy in the advance of chemistry, often with many positive effects, in improving the quality of life, curing disease and prolonging life. In fact, sages over time have found ways to approve practices that look very much like cross-breeding.
We acknowledge as we discussed in the mitzvot related to idolatry that mixing the heathen with the Godly is dangerous, thus prohibited. Further, as we have been discussing in this chapter and will again discuss in a moment, mixing the sacred and the secular can diminish the sacred and harm our mission to bring greater holiness into the world. Nevertheless, our tradition is full of mixing and adaptation that have been conducive to life generally as well as our capacity to serve God in the world. I think, for example, of the rabbis who preserved Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple. You would, of course, think of Christianity itself. People of God have survived, and that survival has been occasioned by change, renewal, and fresh growth.)
C. So, digging deeper and getting more specific, what is it about these mixtures that God wants us to worry about? Let’s start with the easiest of them. What’s wrong with yoking two different animals, say an ox and a donkey, to work together?
(I love this one for many reasons. One is that this throws us right back into the core ethics that underlie the holiness code itself. It’s fundamentally about how we treat other living creatures, and ultimately each other. We learn about and commit to live by the principles of justice and mercy through a rule about animals.
The donkey and the ox are different animals with different strengths and different patterns of work. To plow them together is to say that we neither understand nor respect the differences. We act as if the animals are interchangeable objects, as if one is the same as the other. Further, treating them the same is likely to cause each of them pain. Plus, we render their work, which is done on our behalf, less effective and useful by such means of yoking.
Would we wanted to be treated that way? Would our neighbors and kin want to be treated that way? The first lesson we learn in forbidden mixtures is further instruction on how to “love your neighbor as yourself.”)
D. 1. Next, let’s look at the prohibitions against mixing wool and linen and mixing seeds of other crops in the field with grapes? What in the world might that be about?
(There is considerable uncertainty about these. Both of these have to do, some sages argue, and I agree, with a concern about too easily mixing the sacred and the secular. Wool and linen were woven together in the curtain in the Temple, and it’s argued the two should not be mixed in a secular setting. Others say we don’t mix the two because pagan priests did so in their garments.
As to mixing seeds in the vineyard, there are several, and different, attempts at explanation. Here’s what I see: the chief product of the vineyard, wine, has been used prominently both in ancient and modern times in ceremonies associated with sacred encounter. We want to be sure it is pure and unalloyed by another seed.)
2. Based on this discussion, what do you see as the possible purpose of these mitzvot? What do we learn from the idea of refraining from such mixtures?
(We must protect the sacred. Our mission is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. And, for all the reasons we’ve discussed over these many weeks, it is in sacred space where we are instructed, inspired, and become more committed to holiness, and it is in sacred space where we formally encounter the Divine in worship, service, and offerings.
We are not constructed holy. Yet, we are constructed to be taught holiness, to understand holiness, to choose holiness, and to work to bring holiness to the world.
In order to best sustain the means by which we become holy, we seek to keep sacred space pure and our experience there pure from the secular, the ordinary. We come out into the mundane from the sacred to spread the sacred, as we work to extend God’s sovereignty throughout the world.)
2. Read Numbers 6:3-7, 13-15.
I have been undecided as to how and where to put the mitzvot regarding naziriteship in our discussion. Why do you think I put it here?
Numbers 6: 2 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If a man or a woman makes a binding promise to be a nazirite in order to be dedicated to the Lord, 3 that person must refrain from wine and brandy. He or she may not drink wine vinegar or brandy vinegar, nor drink any grape juice or eat grapes, whether fresh or dried. 4 While a nazirite, the person may not eat anything produced from the grapevine, not even its seeds or skin. 5 For the term of the nazirite promise, no razor may be used on the head until the period of dedication to the Lord is fulfilled. The person is to be holy, letting his or her hair grow untrimmed. 6 The period of dedication to the Lord also requires that the person not go near a corpse, 7 whether father, mother, brother, or sister. Nazirites should not defile themselves because of the death of these people, because they bear the sign of their dedication to God on their heads.
13 This is the Instruction for the nazirite. When the term as a nazirite is completed, the person will be brought to the entrance of the meeting tent 14 and offer a gift to the Lord, consisting of a flawless one-year-old male lamb as an entirely burned offering, a flawless one-year-old female lamb as a purification offering, one flawless ram as a well-being sacrifice, 15 and a basket of loaves of unleavened bread made with fine flour and mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil, along with their grain offering and their drink offering.
Q2.What do these verses about nazirites teach us about bringing a greater sense of holiness into the world?
(I think this is fundamentally a discussion about a decision a person living in the secular world makes to effect a separation to serve a sacred purpose. Nazirites separated themselves from their fellows and consecrated their lives more fully to the service of God for a period of time. The demands on their service exceeded the normal requirements of a normal religious life. There is some real criticism of what appears to be asceticism in these practices among certain sages. But we see evidence of its practice both in Jewish and Christian history (such as perhaps with Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist).
2. I’m not suggesting that anyone here become a nazirite. But what sorts of extraordinary commitments might one make that would take one beyond a sort of regular dedication to serving God? How would such service spread the sacred/holy?
(Going on a mission? Putting aside one’s business, profession, or normal life activity to spend significant time doing public service, charitable service, study and teaching? Involvement with causes that bring one to a special commitment to serve in a special way and make a more significant mark?)
3. What meaning do you derive from the text specifically that tells us of the nature and quality of the commitment that the nazirite makes?
(The nazirite is to focus principally on his vow and fulfilling that vow. There is to be no diversion to ordinary experiences, including the pleasure of drinking wine or even intoxication, the concern and touch of death, and vanity associated with the expressiveness of shaping and treating of hair. The word for nazir has the same root as that of crown. The true sovereign is one who governs his desires and his emotions.
As with other of these “purity” mitzvot, the rules make clear the need to set boundaries between the major dramas of our lives. If we are to perform our vow and roles as God expects, we must do so fully engaged with each set of vows, with each role made prominent and with focus, and then, after transition, turn back to the other roles and responsibilities associated with ordinary life. This affords the ordinary person the opportunity to lead a sanctified life, even if but for a brief period of time, as does the priest or Levite more fully in life.)
These mitzvot of purity, in sum, habituate us to a holy life, a life God endows with grace, purpose, and shalom.
We are blessed with transitions between the major dramas of our lives.
We evidence our holiness and commitment to the sacred on a daily basis by being mindful of what we do to eat.
We take care to avoid doing that which brings on the spiritual disease of tzara’at. We are vigilant about the corrupting influence of sinfulness and are guided in how to know it and treat it when we encounter it.
We show care in how we treat and mix with other human beings, animals, and plants with whom we share God’s world. We protect the sacred experience and sacred space in order to assure its role in helping prepare us to perform our mission for God in the broader world.
And, while God expects us to seek to be holy in the normal course of our lives, we are enabled to to take time out of our lives to serve God in extraordinary ways.
All of these instructions are designed to help us fulfill our part of the covenant - to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to bring God’s light to the nations.
Summary of Takeaway Lessons from this Part
Introduction to the next lesson - The Vital Role of Sacrifice in Understanding Holiness
Q1. One could say that nothing of consequence, good or evil, is achieved without sacrifice. Do you agree or disagree?
Q2. How could it be argued that sacrifice is central to the practice of our faith in God and in our service to God?