A man was accustomed to dressing in a dignified manner. His job, though, was one which required that he interact with individuals who wore cheap, torn clothing. Feeling out of place, he acquired a second wardrobe. When he was around his workers, the man would dress to fit the crowd.
Eventually, the man got tired of this charade. One evening he decided to leave his cheap clothes on.
A good friend confronted him in shock. “Until now,” he said, “I knew you did not go in to work looking the way you would when I saw you. But I always thought it was the workers you were fooling, and that this was the real you. Now, who is fooling whom?”
As a nation exiled in a foreign land, the Jews stuck out terribly. With their monotheistic beliefs, unique style of dress, Hebrew language and funny-sounding names (to the Egyptians, that is), there were clearly odd. How were they able to retain their unique identity despite societal pressure?
That’s a funny question. Rather backward, actually. Because the key to a strong identity is not what happens after everyone attacks it; rather, it is the conviction and clarity at the outset. Long before the Egyptians could mock their clothing or customs, the Hebrews had confronted the challenge they presented. They set the record straight: This is who we are. We are not changing. We will not be the fools.
Before entering into any kind of negotiation, we arm ourselves with red lines: “This is the most I will spend,” “I won’t settle for less that that,” “There are no compromises in these areas.” If you don’t do that, you’re liable to lose your pants by the end of meeting.
The same has to go for the values that lie at the core of our identity. Often, one says, “I will see what happens. I will figure it out.” That, however, is a recipe for disaster. As the sages astutely noted, “A wise man is he who anticipates the future.” Maintaining our position won’t get easier; if we don’t set out principles and establish red lines at the outset, it will only get more difficult, and more tempting to let go. And then, who has fooled whom?
Don’t let assimilation happen by default.Take some time to think about what you stand for. Only then, like the family of Jacob, can you enter the proverbial Egypt, the society of moral relativism, with 70 individuals and leave 600,000 strong.