“Everything that Hashem has spoken, we shall do!” (Ex. 19:6, 19:8)
G-d is holy. He is the climax of kedusha, the well from which kedusha flows to the world. In the world He created, He fixed the extent of kedusha and separateness. He gave kedusha to Israel, as it says, “be holy people to Me “ (Ex. 22:30), “You must be holy” (Lev. 19:2), and, “Your camp must be holy” (Deut. 23:15). S'forno comments on this last verse, “From impurity and loathsomeness”. G-d decreed that Israel must sanctify themselves. He, therefore, further decreed separation from the nations and from the profane, because without it, kedusha is impossible, as it states explicitly, “You shall be holy to Me, for I, the L-rd, am holy, and I have separated you out from among the nations to be Mine” (Lev. 20:26). We also learn (Torat Kohanim, Shemini, 12), “Just as I am holy, so are you holy. Just as I am set apart, so must you be set apart.” Here we find kedusha defined: It means separating oneself from the abominations, impurity and bestiality of the world, and instead clinging to purity and spiritual loftiness, goodness and the yoke of Heaven, intent on ascending and becoming holier.
Kedusha is the foundation of the world, because kedusha is perfection and purity, without a trace of abomination, spiritual baseness, selfishness, or bestial lust. Kedusha involves preparation, readying oneself to become holy, to fill one's soul with kedusha, as was said, as was said at Sinai, “Go to the people and sanctify them” (Ex.19:10), and Rashi comments, “Ready them, so that they can prepare themselves”. Kedusha means being ready for holiness and purity to enter the heart and soul.
Our sages said (Torat Kohanim, Kedoshim, 1): If you sanctify yourselves, I will credit you as having sanctified Me. If you do not sanctify yourselves, I will treat you as not having sanctified Me... Abba Shaul says, “Israel are the King's retinue, and they are required to emulate the King. In other words, Israel, as G-d's retinue, have the task of imitating Him, of being as similar to Him as it is possible for a man to be similar to G-d, and of coming close to Him. If they do so, then, so to speak, G-d as well, ascends spiritually and becomes holier. G-d decreed this upon Israel: "Remember and keep all My commandments and be holy to your G-d” (Num. 15:40). The Sifri comments (Shelach, 115), “This is the kedusha of all the mitzvot.” In other words, through all the mitzvot, Israel become holier; and this is their task, because it was for the sake of this that G-d took them out of Egypt.
Mitzvot open up for man the way to holiness. They refine his senses and his soul so that he differentiates between a sin and a mitzvah, between good and evil, between holiness and impurity. The more holy and pure he becomes, the more refined his senses become; and he begins to distinguish, naturally, between truth and falsehood. G-d imbued Israel with natural holiness that all other nations lack. Every mitzvah a Jew performs adds to his holiness, whereas every sin blunts and defiles the soul. Our sages said (Mechilta, Mishpatim, 20). “Every added mitzvah increases Israel's holiness.” Every mitzvah purifies and refines the soul, sanctifying and elevating man. The Torah's goal is to create a person who diminishes himself, who bridles his arrogance, breaking down and negating his ego, who suppresses his evil impulse and liberates himself from covetousness and haughtiness, which are the root of evil and impurity.
Breaking down one's passions is Israel's task. That is why kedusha was commanded so many times in the realms of life fraught with lust and desire; namely food and conjugal relations. G-d brought us out of Egypt only in order to be our G-d, so that we would accept His sovereignty, attributes and mitzvot, for these make us holy. Our sages further said (Torat Kohanim, Shemini, 12) “I am the L-rd, and I brought you out of Egypt”: I brought you out of Egypt on condition that you accept the yoke of mitzvot, for whoever acknowledges the yoke of mitzvot acknowledges the Exodus from Egypt, and whoever denies the former, denies the latter.
We learn a profound lesson here. There are two types of yoke. The first is the yoke of Heaven; the second is the yoke of mitzvot. Many claim that they accept the yoke of G-d's sovereignty, proclaiming faith in the existence of a Higher Power and in His greatness and kindness, but that they reject the yoke of mitzvot. They claim that the Torah of Moses is not the word of G-d, and they, thus, cast doubt on the mitzvot. Here, out sages teach that these are nothing but hypocrites, for whoever rejects the yoke of mitzvot, as recorded in the Torah of Moses, written and oral, shows that he does not really believe in the Exodus from Egypt, G-d's existence, or His ability to have saved Israel from there.
For a person fulfilling the mitzvot to achieve the goal of negating his ego, thereby achieving spiritual ascent and growth, he must be observing them because G-d commanded them. If he is fulfilling them only or chiefly because he “agrees” with them, then he is not at all fulfilling G-d's command, but only submitting to his own whims. Not only does he fail to negate his ego, but quite the contrary, he strengthens it. Suppose then, that someone who denies that the Torah's commandments originated with G-d performs a mitzvah, such as honoring one's parents or giving charity, doing so not because it is a decree of the King, a Divine edict from Sinai, but because he finds it morally agreeable. His blessings are not blessings and his mitzvot are not mitzvot – but blasphemy. Thus, before a person accepts upon himself the yoke of the mitzvot, he has to know that they are commandments. That is, he should perform them by dint of G-d's being Supreme King of kings, not because of his own intellect of feelings. Such was our sages' intent when they said (Kiddushin 31a), “One who is commanded to act and does so is greater than one who is exempt yet does so.” Seemingly the opposite is the case. Should not the highest praise go to the person who, although exempt from doing a mitzvah still does so voluntarily?
Once again, our sages are teaching us that one who volunteers to do a mitzvah is not doing so because it is a mitzvah, or because of any Heavenly yoke. After all, he is exempt! Rather, it is his own decision to perform it, freely arrived at, hence he fulfills no mitzvah (see Tosafot on Kiddushin 31a).
The rule is this: a mitzvah is conceived with a man's accepting the yoke of Heaven and born when he fulfills it because he was commanded to. Therefore, man's first undertaking must be, “Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one” (Deut. 6:4). This constitutes a declaration of unconditional submission to and acceptance of G-d's sovereignty. Then and only then can a Jew accept upon himself the yoke of mitzvot found in the second paragraph of the Shema, having the clear knowledge that the mitzvot he fulfills are based on an acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.