Sermon: Also a multitude travels with us

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 April 2021

As some of you may have noticed over the years, one of my favourite ways to start a sermon is to begin with a rabbinic text about the Torah portion.

Most often it is the text that has led the way: in my reading I’ve come across a new idea, a rabbinic insight that has opened up Torah for me in a new way. And I feel excited to explore it with those with whom I share my Jewish life.

But sometimes it is, I have to admit, a conceit. It’s a technique I’ve developed over the years.
In this case, the task of finding a text generally follows the idea – the intent being to let the rabbis ask the question for us. This is normally possible, because so often their questions, about Torah and about the world, are also our questions, even if their answers very often will not be.

And that is how I expected this morning’s sermon to go.

I had the germ of an idea I wanted to explore about one of our portions this morning – and now I just needed to find the text.
So, I studied. I read midrashim; searched databases; asked wise and knowledgeable colleagues; messaged other members of Leo Baeck faculty.

But, even in a corpus as vast as rabbinic literature, sometimes the question that you want to ask isn’t there: either the rabbis didn’t ask it, or for some reason their answers, their conversations, were not preserved.
Which is interesting in itself. Why not? Perhaps my question was too subversive, too uncomfortable.

So, this is the question, for which I, thus far, have found no explicit answer:

Did the erev rav sing at the sea?
When it says ‘az yashir Moshe u’v’nei Yisrael’ – ‘Moses and the Israelites sang’, were erev rav included? And if not, what were they doing at the time? Were they merely sat on the side-lines watching?

Let me take a quick step back.
Last week, on first day Pesach, when we read the account of the Exodus, we read the following: ‘v’gam erev rav alah itam’ – ‘and also erev rav, normally translated ‘a mixed multitude’ went up with them’.

Now it’s not exactly clear who this mixed multitude who went out of Egypt with the Israelites were.
Perhaps – a recent hypothesis suggests – they were soldiers for hire, mercenaries who travelled with Israel;

Perhaps some of the lower classes in Egypt, who took the opportunity to escape with the Israelites – according to Joseph Hertz in his chumash, a “mass of non-Israelite strangers, including slaves and prisoners of war, who took advantage of the panic to escape from Egypt.”
He adds, in a rather 1930s English, very ‘Hertzian’ comment “They were not a desirable class of associates”.

Or maybe they were just ordinary Egyptians who, faced with the proof of God’s awesome power, attached themselves wholeheartedly to Israel’s cause?
Rashi simply describes them as converts.
With a bit of wordplay, the Zohar – of which a bit more later – identifies them as a particular group of converts: a specific group of Egyptian magicians.

Whoever they were, this erev rav exited Egypt with the Israelites. Indeed, according to early traditions, they even outnumbered the Israelites.
That being the case, they must have been there at the sea.
So, what did they do as the song was sung? Did the Israelites sing with them – were they included in this moment of joyful song and praise of God.

The question may not be answered explicitly in our tradition, but we can piece together what the Sages might have said.

From what I’ve already shared, it’s clear that there are very different views of who this erev rav might have been, and what they might have brought with them.

On the one hand, we have those who view them, with Rashi, as wholehearted joiners of people Israel. The best example of this tradition is found in a midrash in Exodus Rabbah which identifies the erev rav with a group of Egyptians who did not support the oppression of the Israelites, but rather supported their desire for freedom, who threw in their lot with the oppressed, and shared with them in the rituals of the Exodus.
“Ha-k’sharim sheb’mitzrayim ba’u v’asu pesach im Yisrael v’alu imahem, shenemar ‘v’gam erev rav alah itam” it states – “The kosher/the fit/the proper, the good maybe – among Egypt came and participated in the Pesach with the Israelites, and went up with them, as it says ‘an erev rav went up with them.’”

If they shared in the Pesach offering, so, too, we can assume, even though it is not said, that they must have shared in the Song at the Sea, and in the joys and challenges of the Israelites that followed.

On the other hand, however, we have that voice so beautifully expressed by Hertz – “They were not a desirable class of associates”.
This position often identifies the erev rav with another group among the Israelites, the asafsuf of Numbers 11 – JPS translates it as the riffraff – a group whose complaints about lack of meat bring divine anger, quail, and plague to the Israelites.

The link is made, in part, from the words themselves, from the fact that both erev rav and asafsuf contain a repetition of part of the Hebrew root – aravrav: ayin reish bet, reish bet; asafsuf: aleph, samech, feh, samech, feh.

But, of course, this is much more than an etymological position. It is an ideological one.
It seeks to distance Israel from some of the events in the wilderness. It will not surprise you to hear that there is a midrashic tradition that it was the erev rav who were behind the building of the Golden Calf.

The implication of these traditions is that Moses did something wrong in allowing this group to travel with Israel. Indeed, the text from the Zohar, that I mentioned earlier, imagines an interaction between God and Moses in which God tells him not to accept these Egyptians as converts; but Moses, being just too nice, can’t say no.

The ideological position here is one in which others are viewed as a source of risk. In one text in the Babylonian Talmud, those Babylonian Jews who behave in a way the rabbis don’t like are condemned as descendants of the erev rav. And, again it will be no surprise to learn this, in modern Orthodox rhetoric, erev rav becomes a euphemism for not proper Jews. Which, I guess, includes us.

With all that, it’s fair to assume that, according to this position, the erev rav did not sing at the sea, that their voices were not included, that they were just watching as the real Israelites sang.

But this is not explicit.
The text is silent.

Which means, more than ever, it is left to us to write the midrash. We can decide what happened at the sea.
We have these two models in front of us: one which viewed the erev rav with welcome and gratitude, and one which viewed them with suspicion. And we can decide which one we will use to fill the gap.

Of course, we write that midrash not only in text but also in the midrash that we write in our lives.

It falls to us to decide how we welcome those who travel with us: how we view them, how we include them or not – those who come to sing joyful song with us.
How we welcome those who join our families; those who attach themselves either formally or informally to our community – Jews and non-Jews alike, through conversion or participation, joining their voices to ours.
It is up to us whether and how we will continue to ensure that those who over the last year have become our new friends over zoom, are able in the future to continue to join in with our song.

Despite my efforts, I could not start this sermon with the voice of our tradition on whether those who joined were part of the moment of joyful song.
It is an interesting academic question why this gap exists, what it tells us about the rabbis’ view of the erev rav, indeed of others in general.

But, of course, the rabbinic text is never really the important thing in the sermon. There is an altogether more important question for us to answer. For a multitude also travels with us. It is up to us whether we include them in the songs that we sing, whatever may have happened at the sea.