December is the month of difference for Jews. We usually deal with it by talking about respect for differences, and appreciation of diversity.
This year (2010) Parashat Shmot falls right exactly on Christmas Day. The opening of the book of Exodus tells for sure a story about "difference" between the Egyptians and the Israelite nation who live as guests there.
You could read Parashat Shmot and focus on the terrible consequences of difference -- intolerance, xenophobia, genocide. No question that's the screaming message. In Egypt, the Israelites were not simply different. They were other, foreign, frightening, unknown.
But there is also another side of the story, which I'm titling here the "plus side of otherness." You see it in the characters of the midwives who refuse to kill Israelite newborns, in Pharaoh's daughter who rescues the Hebrew boy from the Nile, and in Moshe himself.
Which midwives did Pharoah order to carry out the terrible order against the baby boys? Depending on how you "vowel" the Hebrew consonants, they were either "Hebrew midwives" or "midwives of the Hebrews." When Moshe went out as a young man and saw the Egyptian taskmaster beating the slave, did he know he was "going out to his brothers?" The narrator lets us know, but at no point does Moshe or anyone else identify him as a Hebrew.
The text's ambiguity suggests that the midwives and Moshe understand themselves as outsiders in a power structure. Or perhaps as both inside and outside, as majority and "other." This is probably why the midrash names Pharaoh's own daughter -- nameless in the Torah -- "Batya", or "daughter of Adonai." Somehow she too was an outsider, even in the palace.
These characters who are outside or other are the ones who can step outside, or to the side, and see things without being blinded by their group identity. And from seeing, they act. They aren't wholly defined by any group, so the midwives and Moshe and "Batya" can act in solidarity with any group.
To me, one of the best parts of being an American Jew is being other, being inside-outside. Yes, it is also dangerous to be other. But we also have the privilege of a different vantage point. We participate in American life, but have a built-in sensitivity for any group that is being oppressed. We participate in the economy and the culture, but we can take a stand against the excesses of materialism, worship of things, celebrity, and narcissism.
So being different at this time of year can be a great gift. The perspective we can have as partial outsiders is not just a difference to be appreciated or "respected." It can be edgy and subversive, and make others uncomfortable. Embrace it, and don't give it up.