Parshat Aharei Mot contains what many might consider the most difficult of all of the mitzvot of the Torah: “The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. My rule alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws; I the Lord am your God.” (Leviticus 18:1-4) In sum, what we have here is an obligation to be different and, for a minority people, this is one of life’s biggest challenges; for on the one hand, the temptation to be like everyone else and to fit in is great, while, on the other hand, it is tragic to forfeit one’s identity on the altar of uniformity.
This challenge has faced the Jew since time immemorial. The rabbinic sages project this dilemma onto to somewhat contrasting pictures of how they saw the Israelites in Egypt. In one vignette, “Rabbi Elazar HaKapar says: ‘Didn’t the children of Israel possess four virtues (mitzvot) which nothing in the world was as worthy as them – they maintained Jewish sexual ethics, they did not tale-bear, they maintained their Jewish names and they maintained their language (Hebrew).” He goes on to say, however, that they succumbed to the worship of idolatry. In the end, they managed to become worthy of redemption by conquering their “addiction” to idolatry. (See Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yismael Piskha 5, Horowitz-Rabin ed. pp. 15-16)
Another midrash paints an even more pessimistic picture: “Just as it is difficult for the owner of lilies to extricate flowers when they are surrounded by thorny weeds, so, too, the redemption of the children of Israel was difficult for the Holy One Blessed be He, as it is written: ‘Or has any god ventured to go and take for himself one nation from the midst of another…’ (Deuteronomy 4:34) [Why?] Both the Israelites and the Egyptians were uncircumcised; they both wore their hair similarly; they both wore clothing of mixed fibers (linen and wool). If this is so, the quality of Divine justice should not have allowed them to be redeemed! [So, how is it that they were redeemed?] Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani: ‘If it were not that God had taken an oath to redeem them, they never would have been redeemed.” (Leviticus Rabbah 23:2, Margulies ed., pp. 527-528)
The point of these anecdotes was not to be depressing but rather to illustrate that the sages were quite aware of how difficult it is to swim against the stream and maintain a positive self-identity as a minority no matter how precious that identity might be. To be a serious Jew is to walk a tight-rope between one’s Jewish identity and one’s Jewish identity. It is tragedy to lose something so precious just to conform. I guess that is the meaning of the Yiddish idiom: “ס’א’יז שווער צו זיין א ייד” – “It’s hard to be a Jew.”