This week’s Torah portion lays out a comprehensive array of divinely ordained commandments that define the range of Judaism’s unique values. Legislated to an assemblage of just-liberated slaves, these are the concepts and aspirations taught orally to Moshe at Mount Sinai and thereafter transmitted in an appendix — the written Torah. Through them we were sculpted into an entity greater than mere physical emancipation could have offered. We were made holy.
In Judaism, “holiness” is epitomized by separateness. “Behold [they comprise] a Nation that shall dwell alone” (Bamidbar 23:9). We are holy because we are separate.
These laws separated us from the practices of the surrounding world. Don’t just fear your dad but also your mom; don’t just cuddle up to mom with honor but also honor dad. And yet remember that both your parents, no less than you, answer to the Creator; their authority extends only within Torah’s parameters.
Yes, be really careful to observe all the detailed rituals governing animal sacrifice, and carefully observe all kinds of esoteric laws: Refrain from donning garments made from a combination of both linen and wool. Don’t shave with a razor blade or obliterate your sideburns or get caught up in a societal tattooing craze (tat-too shall pass). Don’t go to fortunetellers, and don’t erect statues.
But also remember that, as part of being holy — of being different — your Creator will hold you accountable for cursing deaf people and for tripping up the blind, even if they are oblivious to your deeds. He will demand you account for conducting business dealings deceitfully, for failing to leave a corner of your field’s produce as open pickings for the poor. Don’t you dare steal or deal falsely. If you invoke His name in a false oath, if you perjure yourself in a court filing, you will have to account. Don’t you dare cheat your neighbor, and don’t you rob, and don’t you withhold your employee’s wages past payday. Don’t you dare.
Maybe the late-night television talk show hosts make fun of elderly people, but not you. When you see someone with white hair, you get up from your cozy chair and you stand out of respect, and you honor that timeworn face. She has endured it all, and she has earned your reverence.
So it’s not just about meticulously observing 39 rules that define Jewish Sabbath observance — although that, too, is central to the very concept of a Jewish People. Nor is it only about eating kosher and avoiding forbidden mixtures. Rather, it also is about being honest, ethical, trustworthy and thus noble. Your scales must be honest when you weigh a pound of meat or a hill of beans. Your every transaction must be honest; even your résumés must be truthful: where you went to school, the degrees you truly earned. A holy nation is not led by crooks, nor does it honor them.
That is what makes a great people. Such separateness makes “holy.”
Greatness is not measured by the size of your bat mitzvah smorgasbord or the layout of your backyard pool, but by how you acquired them. Your fancy car, your home landscaping and the jewelry in your safe do not define you. Your deeds define you. As Rabbi Emanuel Rackman taught: It is not enough to do well; you must do good.
Whom do we honor? At our every organizational banquet, our every special event, do we make room on the dais to honor at least one person of modest means whose presence is grounded exclusively in her kindness, her goodness, her nobility of character?
Money is great. And many profoundly wealthy people also justly populate the platform of the noble, those blessed with dignity and grace of character. But is wealth the standard we employ in selecting our nobles, our honorees? Can a holy nation count among its leaders those whose wealth is bound with mendacity? Those who became rich by ruining others or those who climbed ladders by destroying the reputations of others?
Not a holy nation. Not a nation separated and set apart by the command of their Creator to deal honestly, to judge honestly, and never to do unto others what they would not want done to them.
That is the striking message of this week’s Torah portion. It should be mandatory reading for every banquet committee and every nominating committee in organized American Jewish life. Its message is that extraordinary. And we all should study it, too.
Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of tort law and of civil procedure at Loyola Law School, is the rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, a modern Orthodox congregation in Irvine.