• Aaron Levi

Passover: Then & Now

Two powerful Passover-related concepts have been influencing my thoughts on Jewish Peoplehood this week. The first, Erev Rav, holds that “a mixed multitude went up with” the Hebrews as they quickly prepared to flee Egypt (Exodus 12:38, Sefaria translation). The other is the chamisha, or “one-fifth,” with one commentary positing that only one in five Hebrews fled Egypt while all others remained. As an act of collective memory, Passover can easily seem separate from the world today. Yet Erev Rav and the chamisha call out to the contemporary Jewish People as we envision who we will become in the 21st Century.

I often thought of the Exodus as a homogenous group—they were all Israelites fleeing Egyptian bondage, right? Yet, the Erev Rav, or the “mixed multitudes” of Egyptians and other oppressed peoples, formed a sizable contingent. Perhaps that’s one reason why, from the Golden Calf to the Israelites’ incessant grumbling, Rabbinic tradition often blames them for leading the Israelites astray. Furthermore, the Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbala, writes that the mixed multitude exists and engenders strife in every generation. Why such an uncharitable view of people who could have easily stayed in Egypt? Sure, they might have been slaves, too, but they also enjoyed some variety in their diet, as the Israelites griped in the desert about the “fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5, Sefaria translation). Isn’t suffering that’s familiar easier to endure than the unknown—even if the unknown may ultimately lead to something better? What compelled so many converts to embark on such an arduous journey? They would have clearly known about the Hebrews’ oppression. They would have no doubt saw God’s wonders and heard of Moshe, God’s instrument of liberation. Perhaps, by witnessing these miracles, they came to believe in Adonai and the Israelites’ promised redemption. Whatever it was, it must have been inspiring because, otherwise, it was a whole lot easier to make due in Egypt.

I have been equally intrigued how the Mikhilta of Rabbi Ishmael Beshallah inverts common understanding of the Exodus. With a slight difference in the rendering of Hebrew vowels, he re-interprets the Hebrew word for “armed” (as with weapons) in Exodus 13:18 as “one-fifth.” Rather than the Israelites leaving Egypt armed, Rabbi Ishmael argues that only one-fifth of the Hebrews actually left.

I wonder how different our story would be had all the Hebrews left Egypt. How would we have benefited from the additional intellectual, social, human, artistic, and religious capital during the Israelites’ wandering? What about as they settled the land of Israel during the Judges period? And as David unified his kingdom? As for the mixed multitude, I wonder if they regretted coming along once they were scapegoated for the entire people’s sins. Was Revelation at Mount Sinai and the redemption they shared with the Israelites truly worth it? Would they ever truly be accepted?

Ultimately, an anachronistic understanding of the term “mixed multitudes” diminishes our personal and communal responsibility for decisions our generation has inherited and the ones we make today. It’s easy to say, “It’s not us. They’re the problem! If only we could get rid of them!” Long before Ruth, the mixed multitudes were the first “Jews-by-choice.” These courageous souls, then and now, decide to throw their lot into our shared future for better or worse. Still, plenty of Jews today struggle to be seen, recognized, and counted. Simultaneously, many Jews slip through the cracks or are expressly turned away by the community for one reason or another. Much more than Jewish demographics, this causes me great concern, for the future success of our cooperative endeavor depends on the investment from each and every Jew.

To some extent, we are now all Jews-by-choice. With so many options and outlets, we’re Jews because we choose to do Jewish stuff. By learning about and reinterpreting Jewish traditions—and encouraging others to do the same—we can become more inclusive, welcoming, and righteous, critical ingredients if we’re to continue thriving in the 21st Century and beyond.

On that note, I wish everyone a Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!


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