In the remarkable array of laws in this parashah, the odd man out deals with the food we eat (Ex. 22:30). In this statement of kashrut, like other such instances in the Torah, the text uses the language of sanctity: “You shall be holy people to Me”.
Two questions – what are food laws doing in a code of civil and criminal law, and why all of a sudden a reference to holiness?
The answer to the first question is that in Judaism there is no line of demarcation between one type of law and another. Eating is part of life and so are justice and honesty; relating properly to human beings is part of religion and so is relating to the Creator.
The second question requires us to look at the purpose of the Torah way of life. Unlike some other systems, it does not simply seek to make us civilised; it wants us to be holy. It is not just interested in good order and government; it wants us to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).
Being civilised is already an achievement: being holy gives a higher motivation for obedience – answerability to God. It also ensures that we see the sacred in every person, place, moment and challenge.
Maybe that is why the portion begins (Ex. 21:2) with the rules relating to servants. Hard on the heels of the Exodus which brought us from slavery to freedom we learn that servants are also made in the image of God, a concept that was lacking when we were slaves in Egypt, part of a civilisation that oppressed others because it was civilised but not holy.