In our Torah portion this week, we read a plethora of laws stretching from the mundane to the most central principles of the Torah. And in amongst them, a law all about individuality and its importance. The parasha contains the rule forbidding us from ploughing our fields with an ox and a donkey together. Most interpreters understand this law as being about preventing animal cruelty. The ox and the donkey have different strengths and to require them to plough together would be cruel and inflict pain and suffering on them both. But this week I read an interpretation by Rabbi Artson who suggests a different perspective. He says that it is teaching us about the importance of being who we are, of embracing our individuality and celebrating what makes us unique. He writes: to harness them together would mean that “one animal would constantly feel pressured to adopt the standards of the other” (Bedside Torah pg. 323) rather than be true to who they are in their individuality.
In our world, we talk about a cult of individuality. There is an implication that we are all taking selfies, posting on Facebook and Twitter, letting people know who we are and in the process demonstrating the ways we are different. But perhaps this gives a false sense of celebrating difference. If we look closely at the Facebook pages, the selfies, so much of it is about being the same; conforming to the norms around us and being like everyone else. There was a wonderful video doing the rounds of YouTube where a father filmed his daughter, unbeknownst to her, taking a series of selfies, trying to get her selfie pout exactly right. I am sure she only sent out the best selfie and deleted the rest. These moments which appear to be spontaneous are often far from it and instead of reflecting who we are, it shows who we are when we are trying to be like everyone else. I heard someone comment the other day that as much as Instagram is supposed to be casual, un-posed photos, how often do we see an Instagram shot with someone’s mouth full or their eyes closed and all the other mistakes we would expect in photos which are spontaneous? We harbour a false sense that we embrace difference when in fact much of social media has instead provided us with more means of showing how we are all the same, leaving very little room for individuality.
Our parasha this week reminds us of how important it is to embrace who we are, our differences and our uniqueness, and to celebrate those parts of us as well. It can be difficult to be outside the norm, but God created each of us to be someone special in the world and if we take someone else’s path then we are not becoming who can be. May we all find our way and celebrate who we are.