It’s curious that while Parshat Kedoshim mandates that the Jewish People be holy, Kedoshim Tihiyu, nowhere is “being holy” in itself listed as one of the 613 mitzvot. Rather, the parsha proceeds to list more than 50 (approximately 8-1/2% of the total) specific mitzvot through which we can begin to become holy. (The argument that the verse says Daber, “Speak” and V’Amarta Alayhem, “And say to them”, rather than Tzav, “Command”, holds little water since very few of the mitzvot are introduced with that specific language, “tzav”.) It’s also important to understand that while one can be commanded to do something or to refrain from something else, how can we reasonably be commanded to be something? We can, indeed, work hard and wish deeply for results, but it’s impossible to guarantee success.
Granted that the Torah assumes that by following the mitzvot, that is to say honestly attempting to carry them out, we will at least approach a higher state of being, and granted that our tradition assumes that if all Bnei Yisrael, or at least a critical mass of us, actually did fulfill mitzvot we’d also bring about a higher state of existence for the entire Creation, why is coercion always rejected? It’s “for our own good”, after all, so shouldn’t we be made to do it?. Oftentimes,after all, medicine may be bitter and painful treatment might lead to healing. Nonetheless, the Torah leaves our individual compliance in our own hands–it, indeed, obligates but doesn’t enforce.
What is it about Bechira, free choice, that makes it such a supreme value? Take the mitzvah of tzedaka, charity, for example. Can the $20 a needy person might receive buy any more or any less depending on if it was freely offered or forcibly collected (let’s assume both the donor and the recipient are mutually anonymous to keep it even)? Is the value of a mitzvah limited to the effect that action has in the physical world? Although there is a sense of the word which allows us to say that God “wants” us to perform mitzvot (kabbalistically we can say that “it arose in God’s Will” for Bnei Yisrael to be obligated) , can we even say that God benefits from our compliance? After all, as we learn in Malachi (3:6), Ani HaShem lo shaniti, “I, God, am unchanging”. God is neither enhanced nor reduced by our performance or non-performance of a mitzvah.
On the other hand, both we and the physical/spiritual world we inhabit can and do change in response to human action. In ways we cannot fathom (but can, perhaps, through the halacha process, “tweak”), the mitzvot are designed to perfect and complete us–this is the real meaning of Tikkun Olam, repairing each person, who is considered an Olam Katan (small world), a microcosm of the entire universe, by means of the mitzvot. And, in doing so, we bring the larger world, also described as Adam Gadol, the universe as aligned with the essence of each human, into a state of tikkun, complete harmony.
The question is what force is able to link our physical actions to these great spiritual, non-material processes? The actions seen only for themselves, are actually rather empty, merely shuffling and reshuffling things that already exist–material objects (which include ourselves and other people as seen only physically).
The linking mechanism is, in fact, this bechira, our freely made decision to do something, even (especially?) when it has no apparent material benefit, only because we are called. Merely by exercising our bechira we, slowly but surely, begin to resemble and thus approach The Creator Who always acts with the benefit of others “in mind”. As we separate from our material self-interest we separate ourselves from complete entrapment in the material itself. As God is Kadosh, Holy, which word also means separate, we emulate His Kedusha, separating ourselves from the narcissistic slavery of of self, and , thus approaching the mandate of this parsha.