A Hasidic fable relates how a little prince raised amidst luxury grew to be a bored young man who ran away to join a gypsy band. He was attracted to their unusual costumes, undisciplined antics, and wandering lifestyle. But over time he came to learn that appearances could deceive. What he initially found so attractive was, in truth, superficial. His troupe traveled aimlessly, lived in poverty, and suffered the vagaries of living beyond the law2. The erstwhile prince became an actor and, like most who practice the carft, came to know hunger and cold. The lavish costumes of the stage were no substitute for the rags he was compelled to wear in reality. The pressures of living on the jagged edge of life induced him to forget his life as a prince.
One day, the wandering band happened to return to the prince’s home country. While affixing a poster announcing their production, they saw an old, faded poster offering a reward for the return of the prince. Soon discovering that their actor-protégé was the missing royal heir, they rushed him off to the palace. The prince remembered nothing of his palatial experience but the king recognized him at once and offered him the entire kingdom. But the prince – still thinking of himself as a destitute gypsy – asked for nothing more than a pair of new shoes.
It is here that the rebbe telling this story drew his conclusion. We are all like the prince. Fancy clothes and novelty items easily distract us. We yearn to free ourselves of constraints and commitments that impede unrestrained self-expression. As a result, we become terribly lost and forget our true identity. This was both the attraction and danger of Hellenism and the real struggle of the Maccabees. Interestingly, Joseph who calls Egypt “the land of my affliction” anticipated this struggle. Although Joseph became wealthy and powerful, argues Don Isaac Abarbanel, Joseph still felt afflicted having to live in a strange land separated from his kin and his heritage. The lure of fame or fortune can never compensate for our spiritual identity, the profound sense of belonging to an eternal people.