The Israelites leave Egypt en masse. They were joined by an עֵרֶב רַב(erev rav), a term that is most often translated into English as a mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38).
A mixed multitude of who or what? These people are not Israelites; they are Egyptians and perhaps others who came from other cultures and regions and are living in Egyptian society. They choose to join the Israelites-600,000 men plus women and children-as our forebears make their way out of Egypt, into the desert. This mixed multitude didn’t want to be in Egypt either. Why? Why does anyone leave their familiar but constricting home to live in another set of surroundings, to face a new set of challenges, to go be with another tribe? Are they simply believers in what the Israelites are doing, or are they facing a future they don’t want, perhaps even living impoverished or endangered lives? The journey into the desert offers purpose and meaning and an ethical framework that doesn’t exist in Egyptian society. They throw in their lot with a tribe not their own, for a journey to what is, for everyone involved, a total unknown.
Although this mention of the mixed multitude in the Exodus narrative is brief, our Sages have noticed them. According to medieval sage RASHI, the erev rav were an ethnically mixed group of converts who have decided to join the Israelites. They chose to be on this journey with our people. For me, that is the point of greatest significance.
Other rabbis in our tradition the presence of the erev rav to be objectionable, suspecting them to be insincere converts, troublemakers, subversive agents within the Israelite camp. Abraham Ibn Ezra writes of the erev rav, “this is the riffraff of Numbers 11:4. Asafsuf.” He links them to the community members who complained in the desert about the food not being the same as what they had remembered eating back in Egypt.
Today, as well as throughout our tradition, the charge of being erev rav is leveled at those who don’t fit the one’s idea of what a real Jew is. It is conveniently applied when one wants to discredit a Jew of any community, whether the other is of another denomination, set of social values, or political loyalty.
This denial and distrust is wrong. The Jewish people has been blessed to always have been multilingual, multicultural, and multivocal. We come from a multitude of countries throughout the world, and we have always lived according to varying levels of religious knowledge and practice. Welcoming those whose voices are different, whose backgrounds and perspectives seem unfamiliar, keep us vital and strong. We need to accept them with love, not view them with fear and derision.
The erev rav are with us for a reason. Just as they were with us during our long walk to freedom, they are with us now. They are us. Let’s not lose track of who the real Jews are.