Why is it important to distinguish between things? Twice in this week’s Parsha, Parshat Shimini, B’nei Yira’el are told להבדיל, to create distinctions.
The first time it is mentioned is after we are told that Nadav and Avihu were killed for bringing a “strange fire” into the Mishkan, and the Torah gives a ruling:
וידבר ה’ אל אהרן לאמר: יין ושכר אל תשת אתה ובניך אתך בבאכם אל אהל מועד ולא תמותו חוקת עולם לדורתכם. ולהבדיל בין הקדש ובין החול ובין הטמא ובין הטהור. (ויקרא י:ח-י)
HaShem spoke to Aaron saying: Do not drink intoxicating wine, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you not die—this is an eternal decree for your generations. To distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure. (Vayikra 10:8-10)
At the end of the Parsha, we are again taught about making distinctions. This time, it comes after we are taught the laws of Kosher and non-Kosher animals.
כי אני ה’ המעלה אתכם מארץ מצרים להיות לכם לאלקים והייתם קדושים כי קדוש אני. זאת תורת הבהמה והעוף וכל נפש החיה הרמשת במים ולכל נפש השרצת על הארץ. להבדיל בין הטמא ובין הטהר ובין החיה הנאכלת ובין החיה אשר לא תאכל. (ויקרא יא: מה-מז)
For I am HaShem who brings you up from the land of Egypt to be a God unto you; you shall be holy, for I am holy. This is the law of the animal, the bird, every living creature that swarms in the water, and for every creature that creeps on the ground. For distinguishing between the impure and the pure, and between the creature that may be eaten and the creature that may not be eaten. (Vayikra 11: 45-47)
The word “to distinguish,” להבדיל, is used in two other places in Tanakh. The first time we see it used is in B’reishit, when God creates the lights in the sky in order to distinguish between the day and the night (B’rashit 1:14). The last time it is used is towards the end of Yechezkel
when the Prophet is describing the Temple in chapter 42, verse 20 “Thus he measured it on the four sides: it has a wall completely surrounding it, 500 cubits long on each side, to separate the consecrated from the un-consecrated.”
Rashi commenting on Vayikra 10:10, tells us that one must distinguish in order to differentiate between the work of קדוש and the חול, from sacred and profane work. And later, with regards to 11:47, he says that the distinction needs to be more than theoretical, rather an actual physical separation is required. Similarly, in Yechezkel, Rashi comments that the reason for the separation was to physically distinguish between the holiness of the Temple and the mundane of the rest of the world.
By separating, we are imitating the acts of God. We are doing the same as He did in creation, when He made a distinction between day and night. The first time in Shmini, our parsha, the Kohanim are told they should be making a distinction between the holy and the mundane, and to remember how they should be acting in each of those situations. Later, the act of distinction is commanded to the entire Jewish people, that we should be separating the “pure” from the “impure,” and the animals from which we can eat versus the ones we cannot—and we do all of this to be holy, as is God. And later, when we have the Temple, we require there to be a physical distinction between what happens inside to what we are doing in our daily lives, in order to make the relationship with God something more special and important. By making distinctions we are able to act like God, connect more closely with Him, and become the holy nation that we are commanded to be.