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Defining Boundaries

Defining boundaries is one of the persistent challenges the Torah puts before us. Lines of delineation are constantly being drawn. Some lines of distinction, like circumcision, are literally cut in the flesh, while others are figuratively drawn in the sand. Boundaries between sacred and profane time are staked out by the movement of celestial bodies. Bodily functions also serve as markers between states of purity and impurity. The Torah even warns against arbitrarily moving boundaries. It is because the Torah persistently emphasizes the importance for clarity between this and that that the line ".. a mixed multitude [erev rav] went up with them..." (Exodus 12:37), referring to the Israelites exodus from Egypt, is noteworthy. Why does the Torah mention this? Who were these "mixed multitudes"? Were they accepted by the Israelites, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

Some Torah commentators do not treat the "mixed multitude" kindly. For example, Ibn Ezra, an eleventh/twelfth century scholar who was known for his independent and often controversial ideas, equates them with the "riffraff" described in Numbers 11:4: "The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving...". In the major Kabbalistic text, Zohar, the "mixed multitude" are identified as five proto-typical evil people (25a - 25b, Tikkunei ha-Zohar). They thus represent a corrupting element among the Jewish people that explains for Jews acting sinfully.

Rashi, the great eleventh century French Torah commentator, described the "mixed multitude" as "a mingling of various nations who had become proselytes". These were people who one might surmise shared the same oppressive conditions as the Israelites. It is also possible that they were Egyptians who had lost their faith in the power of the Pharaoh. The fifteenth/ sixteenth century Italian Torah commentator, Sforno Ovadiah ben Jacob focused on the second half of the verse "...a mixed multitude [erev rav] went up with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle" and viewed them simply as other herding/shepherding people who took the opportunity to flee Egypt along with the Israelites.

Communities continue to struggle with how best to view the "mixed multitude" that are part of the rank and file of the Jewish people today. The struggle is as much about who are the "mixed multitude" as who are not. Today it is increasingly difficult to identify the boundaries which determine who is and who is not part of the "mixed multitude". Jewish blood lines have been disrupted by choice and by force. And yet in other situations Jewish ancestry has been rediscovered and reclaimed. Jews with uninterrupted blood lines have eschewed all things having to do with Judaism, including any desire to be part of the Jewish people. People with no Jewish ancestry have found a spiritual and intellectual home among the Jewish people. There are Jews who have abandoned all forms of Jewish ritual and practice, yet still proudly and publicly proclaim their Judaism.

I think that a reason the Torah includes mention of the "mixed multitude" going out from Egypt along with the rest of the Israelites is to remind us that defining our boundaries has always been a formidable task. However, though Torah offers this little advocacy for multiculturalism, if you will, it does so within the context of the first portion to begin defining behavior through specific mitzvot. Moreover, a few verses later the Torah explicitly states that though "there shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you" those men who are not circumcised may not eat of the paschal offering. I interpret the inclusion of the reference to the "mixed multitude" to mean that we do not have to decide between preserving our specific rituals, rites, and practices and living in an open and welcoming world.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah