Parashat calls on us to be a ‘holy nation’

By Rabbi Brad Horwitz

When God transmits the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the Israelite people take on the new responsibility of being partners with God in a holy community.  In this week’s parashah, we read:  “And you shall be for me a nation of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).  The fact that God recites these words before giving the Ten Commandments places the commandments in a particular context. 

Many modern commentators refer to this verse and the preceding one to discuss what it means for the Israelites to be the “chosen” people of God.  I prefer to focus more on the idea of holiness that is mentioned in this verse.  The Israelites, having just escaped their bondage in Egypt, are now on a new path leading to a new relationship with God, one based on covenant and dedication to God.  The Ten Commandments and the laws to follow are the blueprint that God provides for the Israelite people to  be a “holy nation.”

This prescription to community holiness involves two categories of mitzvot.  The first describes obligations between God and humankind, such as observing Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, prohibition against worshipping idols and believing in only one God.  The terms for these laws is known as mitzvot bein adam l’makom.  In order to build and sustain a holy community, we are instructed to build a relationship with God through the observance of these specific traditions, rituals and rites.  Not only does this provide for us a sense of connection to the binding force of the universe, it gives our community a common heritage, language, culture and customs.

The second category of mitzvot deal with human-to-human interactions, such as not stealing, coveting or murdering.  Yet other such laws deal with ethical and moral behaviors, including helping the hungry and needy, healing the sick, welcoming the stranger and alleviating human suffering in our midst.  These are often referred to by the rabbis as mitzvot bein adam l’chavero.  The second component, therefore, of a holy community is for us to establish positive and meaningful relationships with our fellow human beings. When we treat each other with care, dignity and justice, we build a holy community.


In order to truly have a strong and vibrant Jewish community today, the wisdom of our Torah applies just the same as it did to the ancient Israelites.  Only through the commitment to both categories of mitzvot bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero will our community be a truly holy nation in partnership with God and secure for future generations to come.    Shabbat Shalom

 Rabbi Brad Horwitz is director of the Jewish Community Center’s Helene Mirowitz Center of Jewish Community Life and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.