The Passover story, as told in the Haggadah and the Book of Exodus, is the great unifying narrative of the Jewish people. The bonds of unity and peoplehood are forged in the harrowing escape from slavery, the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea and years of desert wandering. We tell the story as it culminates at Mt. Sinai as a climb to holy unity — oneness of spirit and intention and identity, complete solidarity of the people, one with each other and their God.
But, is that unity really so complete, and is it really the ideal we are looking for?
When the newly freed slaves were finally allowed to leave Egypt, the text tells us in Exodus 12 that an “erev rav” went out with them — a great mixed multitude of other non-Hebrew people joined them on the journey toward redemption. Who was this erev rav, and why does the text take pains to point this out to us?
There were others, possibly slaves of other ethnicities, workers and artisans whose talents were valued who had become attached to the Hebrews through marriage and extended family ties. Others might simply have chosen to throw in their lot with this rag-tag band marching into the desert. This erev rav left Egypt alongside our ancestors as fellow travelers committed to the journey.
While all forged together as a people through their experience of wandering, their commitment to following the route God laid out for them and their acceptance of the covenant at Sinai, there must have been individuals who remembered different stories, spoke different languages and brought different hopes and dreams into the gathering. We know this because of the laws given to the people that sought to unify the disparate parts into a larger tent: “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you.” (Ex 12:48)
Written in the same chapter is a verse that appears 36 times throughout the Torah and the most oft-repeated sentiment: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The prophet Isaiah says: “For My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The Jewish people always lived among and with others. We know this is true during the centuries of the Diaspora and global wanderings. The inclusion of the erev rav and the laws concerning the treatment of strangers belie the assumption that the Jewish people remained wholly separate and segregated from anyone else, even in our earliest mythical history.
At this current moment in history, when some are pushing an image of Israel as a state belonging only for its Jewish citizens, relegating foreign workers, non-Jewish family members and other minorities to second class citizenship, we must remember that we have always been an erev rav — a mixed multitude. We need to remember as well that the covenant at Sinai and its laws requiring care for the strangers among us presages the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.”
Only if we embrace the mixed multitude of the Exodus story and our own time can the ancient dream of a country providing justice to all its citizens be realized.
Rabbi Elyse Wechterman is the Executive Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. A 2000 graduate of the RRC, Rabbi Wechterman served as pulpit rabbi in Attleboro, MA until 2013. She lives in Abington, PA with her family.