We tend to think of “love your neighbor as yourself” as a Biblical commandment that “makes sense”, while, for example, that of “sha’atnez”, the prohibition to mix wool and linen in the same garment, as a “chok”, a law which has no obvious reason. But, seriously, what exactly makes sense about love??
Right after “love your neighbor” it says “you shall keep (guard, maintain) my laws” (Leviticus 19:19). Rabbi Hirsch (19th century) takes us back to the first time we see the verb “to keep”, lishmor, which is when G-d placed the first human in His Garden (Genesis 2:15). What did Adam need to “guard” or “maintain”? For that, we go just a little earlier, to the 3rd day of creation, when G-d says: “’Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.’ And it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:11-12).
Like a chorus, the repeated statement is “after its kind”: each was created to be who and what it is, and to grow within its realm to the fullest potential. Certain mixes interrupt with this process, with this purpose of creation, and we have to guard against that.
When I was very young, wondering about strange laws in the Torah, I was told that it’s not good to mix wool and linen because they shrink differently in hot laundry. Well, maybe that too. But maybe the Torah tells us that “wool” and “linen” are two very different “kinds” beyond the thread in a garment; that one represents the animal kingdom, and the other – the plant. This is symbolic of not mixing certain things.
Interestingly, the same verse (in this week’s reading) also instructs us “not to let (your) cattle gender with a diverse kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed” (still 19:19). We gain some insight from a unique word used here: “kil’ayim”, which means not any mixing but – “materials that are mutually exclusive”. Rabbi Hirsch again, in his poignant dig into Hebrew roots, teaches that “kil’ayim” shares its roots with “ke’le”, jail, prison, and so literally can mean – “two jails”. Accordingly, mixing things that don’t fit with each other, “imprisons” both of them in a place they should not be. Some mixtures help us grow but some others – don’t.
Which brings us back to “love your neighbor”. Because of the usual Hebrew grammar in the verse, Rabbi Hirsch concludes that we are not asked to “love” all people in the romantic sense of the word, which would be impossible and unreasonable, but, we are asked to see the other as we’d like to be seen ourselves, namely, as equal and yes, separate, special human beings created in G-d’s image, and give them the space to be just that, each unique for who he or she is. Nothing more. Nothing less.