Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 22, 2016 – 12 Shevat, 5776
We find ourselves at a heightened moment in our Torah’s narrative. Standing at the sea, crossing and heading to long-awaited freedom, the Jews leave Egypt. But we do not leave alone. A subplot within the rabbinic story of our Exodus from Egypt concerns the “mixed multitude”–the eirav rav.
While the concept of the eirav rav is not well-known, it offers us some very important insights to our own age. After all, in this country and the world, the movements that address multi-culturalism, refugee resettlement, Black Lives Matter, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, immigration or our current election cycle have a way of powerfully derailing us from finding common ground and working together.
So what is this eirav rav? Literally, it can be understood as “a great mixture.” The Torah does not define this “great mixture”, but mentions it sandwiched between the people and livestock who went up from Egypt to Israel. Normally, it is understood as the “mixed multitude” that left Egypt with the Israelites. Their presence is thus intimately connected with our freedom march.
Given their presence, and the Torah’s looming silence, a great many oral and midrashic traditions arose concerning this eirav rav. They are the Egyptian magicians and soothsayers. They are the demonic offspring of Adam, who incarnated as the wicked souls of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are soul sparks that fell from Moses and were subsumed in an evil shell, and thus Moses tried to redeem them by bringing them up from Egypt with us.
The eirav rav is seen by some as outwardly pious Jews and rabbis who mislead the Jewish people in their own desire for power and glory. They are also blamed for the incident of the Golden Calf-how else could Israel commit idolatry immediately after the great miracle of redemption and its receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai?
A motif arises and threads its way through each of these explanations; the eirav rav is responsible for causing Jews to sin (a misuse of our freedom), and thus must be spurned. Implicit is a fallacy often employed by many groups-we are good, and anyone connected to us who does not live up to our standards is not actually a true (insert word: Jew, Christian, Communist, American, Republican or Democrat).
Some of us have wanted to castigate Jews who practice their Judaism differently. Some of us remain suspicious of fundamentalist Christians or assume that supporters of gun rights are fear-mongering crazies. In our day, it seems to me that one troubling part the legacy of the eirav rav finds expression in the hostility and suspicion we have of those who view Israeli politics differently than we do. Wherever we find the most vicious vitriol, you can be sure that there we find the spiritual off-spring of the eirav rav.
Ultimately, the legacy of the eirav rav gives voice to the all too human fear of the Other.
There are real enemies and genuine threats in the world. Only a naïf imagines that all boundaries can be avoided and all walls torn down. A biological cell with no cell walls will quickly die.
Yet it is equally true that a cell shut off from the world also dies, and that people create threats where there are none. Rav Kook was one of the great Chief Rabbis of Israel. He formed bridges between secular and religious Jews where there were none. While discussing the eirav rav, he notes that although diversity creates hardship and difficulty for our identity, it ultimately enriches us and those around us.
Dialogue: How to Mother the Other and Make Them Our Brother
As some of you know, one of the central pieces of work I am striving to bring to Neveh Shalom and the larger Portland community is increased competence in our ability to dialogue. In Hebrew, the word for conversation is sicha, but a dialogue is du-siach-it is a conversation of two. But aren’t most conversations between at least two? Rather, the Hebrew teaches us that dialogue is only possible when we don’t agree, when there are two sides.
Simultaneously, there is mutuality inherent in dialogue. We listen carefully as much as we talk. We seek to understand another person and another perspective rather than to prove our point. Extending our understanding of those around us is one of the most loving gifts we can offer another human being. It is an act of tremendous hesed, of remarkable kindness by which we accept in real terms that another person’s humanity is just as absolute as ours. Their blood is as red as ours.
Real dialogue doesn’t mean that we will change our viewpoint or that we must give up our own beliefs and commitments, or relinquish a just fight. If, however, we are unwilling even to consider that possibility-if we cannot muster sufficient spiritual strength and emotional resilience to risk being receptive, then we are like that cell completely closed off from its surroundings. And in that moment of rejection, we have made both that person and ourselves the Other. Something for all of us to ponder.