The titles of two recent kids’ books describe the current mindset of our diverse society. “We’re All the Same on the Inside” calls out one, while the other reminds us of this essential truth – “Same Inside, Different Outside.” I get the point and agree that in this moment of division and conflict it is crucial to focus on what connects and unites people. Things like race and ethnicity are only visible from the outside. On the inside we’re all simply human. As Shylock famously puts in Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
Still, I wonder if we don’t have it exactly backward. What if, on a deeper, more spiritual and emotional level, we’re actually not all the same on the inside? What, in other words, if we classify all of the items on Shylock’s list – hands, organs, passions, food, diseases, seasons – as ‘outside’ and save such things as soul, spirit, individuality, creativity for our ‘inside’ list? Yes, each of us ‘possesses’ those qualities or aspects; at the same time no two of us has precisely the same mix of them. A statement widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln succinctly gets at that idea: “Every man is born an original, but sadly, most men die copies”.
The Torah pursues the question of difference and distinctiveness in its characteristic way. Just before rattling off a rather lengthy list of mainly sexual prohibitions, Leviticus offers up this general rule: “… 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.” (Leviticus 18:3) The Torah’s words raise many questions. What are practices? Do they differ from laws? Why Egypt? Why Canaan? And more. As one ancient midrash, Sifra, articulates it, “Is it possible that one should not build buildings or plant plants as they do?” How, in other words, do we go about being ourselves, and not operating as mere copies of someone else?
The Torah promotes what is known in family systems theory as differentiation of self. “Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say ‘I’ when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we’… Differentiation means the capacity to be an ‘I’ while remaining connected.” (Edwin Friedman, “Generation to Generation” p. 27) The measures of differentiation, it seems to me, are entirely internal. Where one is on the “scale of differentiation” will determine how one responds to all of the externals on both Shylock’s and the Sifra’s lists. Differentiation, in other words, is about an individual’s soul, spirit, individuality, and creativity. It is wholly an inside game.
The Sefat Emet, the great 19th century Hasidic master, serves up the punch line. “Every deed has an inner and an outer side; the (inner) root of all things is surely in holiness, since all was created for God’s glory.” In contrast, some actions “have no relationship to the inner meaning of all things.” These deeds – habits, customs, actions – are labeled by the Sefat Emet as “mere externals.” Here’s how it works. “The mitzvot set aright the inner image of the human being…they give us access again to our original garment…by ‘doing’ them you fulfill your true image as a person!” Live inside the mitzvot. Be the original you. Stay well differentiated. That’s the path to holiness. Everything else is merely external.