Historians have long been intrigued by the question of the continued existence of the Jewish people. How is that they have survived, despite such adverse factors as exclusion from society, expulsion, persecution, reaching its peak in the Holocaust, and even when they have some freedom, the complementary problem of assimilation? What is the distinctive quality of the Jew and Jewishness?

A clue is provided in this week's Torah reading, Kedoshim,1 as explained by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

What is the distinctive quality of the Jew and Jewishness?The reading begins with the Divine instruction to the Jewish people: "Be Holy! Because I, the L‑rd your G‑d, am holy!"

The Torah text continues with a series of basic Jewish laws. The first two of these are the commands to revere one's mother and father (in that order), and to keep the Shabbat.

We thus have three concepts: holiness, respect for parents and the Shabbat. According to the Rebbe, these three ideas tell us something about the fundamental purpose and nature of the Jewish people.

Over the generations there has been much discussion by our Sages of the concept of holiness. One of their conclusions is that holiness is not expressed merely in the "religious" aspects of life such as prayer. Holiness concerns everyday activities: daily work, how one relates to other people, one's mode of eating and drinking.2 In every detail of life there is potentially a glimpse of the sacred.

How can the Jew achieve this? Because within him or her is a Divine Soul, a spark of pure holiness. During most of one's life this may be deeply hidden. Yet it can suddenly be expressed, at times of spiritual inspiration. Further, there is the potential that this quality of holiness should be revealed in the ordinary details of life.

Perhaps relatively few individuals achieve this in a genuine way. Nonetheless, they provide an example to others of what it means to be a Jew.

Here we come to the second law: the concept of reverence for parents. This presents the idea that holiness and spirituality is not to be reserved for the few individuals who attain it. They have the duty to transmit it to others, beginning with their own children. In this task the role of the mother is paramount. She is the first to help her young child realize that every detail of life is significant, blessed by G‑d.

Every week there is an entire day when the mundane becomes holyThis brings us to the third law: the Shabbat. Every week there is an entire day when the mundane becomes holy. Eating together with one's spouse and one's family, welcoming guests, relaxing. It all has the illumination of the holiness of the Divine, beyond the ordinary daily pattern of weekday life.

We thus see three integral components in the distinctive consciousness of the Jew, through the generations: the quest for holiness in everyday life; the imperative to communicate it to one's children and others, and the wonderful gift of the Shabbat which expresses this goal so completely.3

Perhaps this special quality, encapsulated at the beginning of this week's reading, is the inner secret of our being, which has helped us survive throughout the millennia. Beyond our skills in business, science, medicine, technology, literature, music and philosophy, this is our truly unique contribution to humanity and the world.