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Torah Commentary
Pesach (April 23, 2016)

Jessica Ingram, Director, Member Services

This year, the first night of Passover coincides with Shabbat, and so we pause in our chronological reading of the Torah to focus on a special parashah, designated to be read at the start of the holiday.

Within the Reform Movement, we read Exodus 12:37-42 and 13:3-10, which begins with a description of the departure from Egypt. As someone who always has been fascinated by the many ways in which the text — an idea, a phrase or even just one word — can be translated, analyzed and understood, there was a specific part of the parashah that particularly resonated with me this year.

In Chapter 12, verse 38, we read that an eirev rav left Egypt along with 600,000 Hebrew men and the women, children and elderly who accompanied them. This term frequently has been translated as “mixed multitude,” but there is discussion, if not debate, as to what this term actually means. Our Plaut Torah commentary suggests that these were other people from the lowest levels of Egyptian society who sought to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a better future (p.414). The JPS Jewish Study Bible takes this one step further, explaining that Egyptian texts, and art, document the presence of other slave groups during this time (p.129). A third, and perhaps more dramatic, interpretation suggests that if the Hebrew is read as one word, rather than two separate ones, the final syllable rav no longer means “many” or “multitude” but instead takes on a clearly pejorative meaning, basically defined as “riffraff” or “motley throng” (Alter, p. 382). The Plaut Torah commentary concurs, saying that eirev rav is similar in structure to a word that appears later in the Torah with that same negative translation (p. 414).

The weight of this verse really struck me. These people — not Hebrews themselves but bound to our ancestors through a shared experience of oppression, anguish, desperation and a dream of something better — cast their lot with ours. They fled Egypt, they wandered the desert, and presumably, they too received the Torah at Mount Sinai and entered the Promised Land. Today we make no distinction between the original Hebrews who fled Egypt and those of the mixed multitude who joined us; we became one people during that journey through the desert. The story of the mixed multitudes became the story of the Israelites, and their shared story, in turn, became our story today. As we are commanded later in the parashah (Exodus 13:8), “...explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”

The world still contains a mixed multitude of those seeking freedom and a better life. The Syrian refugee crisis remains a tragic but fitting parallel — although it certainly isn’t the only contemporary plague we face. Human trafficking, modern-day slavery and other unjust economic policies, food insecurity, environmental disasters of our own making...the list could go on.

We always have embraced our religious imperative to perform acts of g’milut chasadim and tikkun olam, as a Jewish community and certainly here at Temple Emanu-El. This parashah reminds us that this is an experience we share with others, and by welcoming the mixed multitudes into our community and our narrative, we all benefit. Our community becomes stronger, more diverse and more resilient, and our collective voice can call out more loudly for justice.

As we prepare our homes, our families and ourselves to celebrate this holiday over the coming week, let us remember all those whose journeys to freedom are not yet complete. Just as God gave us the opportunity for a better life by redeeming us from Egypt, let us continue to strive to make a better life for the mixed multitude standing beside us today.

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