Arriving just after the Pesach holiday and its celebration of our Divine deliverance from bondage, this week's Torah portion provides the point of it all.
Why were the Jewish people taken out of Egypt, as the Haggadah emphasizes, "with an outstretched arm," with plagues and miracles, and led through a splitting sea? Why were they given the Torah? Why were they set apart?
The second verse of the portion, known as Kedoshim, gives the answer: "You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy."
Unlike other sections of the Torah, this digest of 51 separate laws — which govern everything from prohibitions against idolatry to punishments for illicit relations to preserving portions of agriculture for the poor — was taught directly by Moses to the "whole Israelite community."
Typically, laws were transmitted from the Almighty to Moses on the condition that he would teach them to Aaron, who would then instruct the people. The change here was necessitated by the content of the message. In the words of the medieval commentator Rashi, this week's portion is unique because "most of the fundamental teachings of the Torah depend on it."
Put simply, the nature of Jewish DNA, of the Jewish ethos, depends upon this central command: Be holy.
From there flow a whole host of individual precepts: Be honest in business dealings; don't be swayed by a bribe or the condition of either party when dispensing justice; don't cut certain portions of a beard; keep the Sabbath.
The Hebrew word for "holy," kadosh, signifies separateness. In the negative sense, it is used in kadeisha, a harlot, whose relations are characterized by their forbiddenness. In the positive sense, it connotes sacredness, a quality of being separate from the profane. We make kiddush to set Shabbat and the holy days apart from the rest of the days of the week. We honor kedoshim, martyrs, for their self-sacrifice.
But in the same way, being holy demands being apart: "You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you," declares the Torah.
Maimonides uses this principle to justify everything from proper worship practices to manner of dress. There's such a thing as a Jewish beard, he explains, and such a thing as a non-Jewish beard.
'Don't Be Embarrassed'
But holiness is not merely a reflection of external appearances. Being Jewish encompasses thinking Jewishly as well.
In his gloss beneath the very first halachah of the Shulchan Aruch, that a person should "strengthen himself like a lion to stand in the morning in the service of his creator," Rabbi Moshe Isserles writes that this requires a certain amount of pride.
"Don't be embarrassed by those people who ridicule you in your Divine service," he advises.
Later commentators qualify this statement, noting that it's not a license to be haughty. What it is, however, is a reflection of the Jewish state of being.
Just as the Almighty is holy and separate, so, too, the Jewish people are holy and separate. The key is to act like it.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. Email him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.