Why the Erev Rav Were Essential for the Successful Exodus from Egypt

The story of the erev rav is a sordid one in the history of biblical interpretation. Nahmanides famously faults them for the sin of the Golden Calf, and myriad exegetes blame them for everything that goes wrong with the Israelites in the desert. They are the perennial scapegoats of biblical theology. Hayyim Vital arguably likens them to the conversos trying to return to Judaism in the 16th century, and later commentators view them as the enemy inside Israel (depending on which side of the political landscape one is located). And yet, one still wonders, given that there is a solitary reference to them in Exodus, how they grow so large in the Jewish imagination, deflecting the responsibility of Israel’s failure.

In his homilies on Pesah, Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar offers a novel rendering of the erev rav as a necessary part of the Exodus experience without which the Israelites could never have succeeded to merit Sinai.

The story begins with a question. We read in Ex. 12:38 “and the erev rav went up with them” referring to the Exodus from Egypt. In Mekhilat Bo, # 14 the midrash oddly says about this Exodus verse, “and they will be sustained by them.” The midrash then deploys the verse regarding Abraham’s prophecy, “And in the end they will go forth with great wealth” (Gen. 15:15) telling Abram about his progeny. What is the Mekhilta trying to convey juxtaposing these verses? And what does it mean when it says the erev rav sustained the Israelites?

There is a Talmudic passage in b.T Ketubot 66b that states as follows, “My teacher, don’t they have a proverb in Jerusalem that states that ‘salt for money is lacking.’ (מלח ממון חסר)” Rashi renders this as follows, “If you want to ‘salt’ money so that is will remain with you [as salt sustains food through pickling], you should diminish your wealth with charity, and the diminishing of your wealth will assure its sustainability.”

That is, if one attains wealth and does not give some of it to charity, the wealth will not remain. This raises a question about the pre-history of the Exodus. Abraham is promised that his descendants will find themselves in a state of harsh servitude, from which they will ultimately be released, and “with great wealth.” This is affirmed in the Talmudic passage (b.T. Berakhot 5b) that when the Israelites left Egypt, they were all granted great wealth. Thus, when the Israelites left Egypt there was no poverty among them, they were essentially a classless society. If so, how could they give charity, as charity must be given to the poor, that is, to those in need. And if they could not give charity, their wealth could not be sustained and they would not have been able use it for survival and to build the mishkan. In addition, tradition tells us that one who attains wealth and then loses it is susceptible to despondency and depression (Prov. 10:22). The blessing of “great wealth” if not managed properly, could also be a curse.

In order to deal with this conundrum, Teitelbaum suggests God evoked in the erev rav the desire to follow the Israelites out of Egypt. The erev rav didn’t just follow the Israelites out of Egypt but according to some, they ‘converted’ to become part of the Israelite people. But their conversion, as sincere as it may have been, did not include them in the Abrahamic prophecy of “they will serve as slaves” (they did not serve as slaves) and thus they are also not included in the prophecy that “they will leave with great wealth.” In fact, the erev rav, as Egyptians, when they left, did not carry the wealth that the Israelites took from Pharoah.

Thus, the erev rav, as Israelites who did not inherit that aspect of the Abrahamic prophecy of servitude and freedom, constituted the impoverished class in the desert that the Israelites were able to support through charity, thereby diminishing their wealth and thus assuring its sustainability. Without the erev rav, that is, without a segment of society that was in need, the wealth the Israelites were gifted through the Exodus would have eventually disappeared.

Whatever the erev rav may have done subsequent to the Exodus, they were a crucial component of the Exodus community that enabled the Israelites to move toward their fate at Sinai. Without the erev rav, the exodus experience would have come to naught because the disappearance of poverty as a result of the exodus left the Israelites no outlet to recognize their blessing through supporting the disenfranchised, even as those disenfranchised were not integral to their own society.

So, when we begin the seder asking all those who desire or are in need to join us, we are essentially inviting the erev rav into our homes, those in need who can share in the wealth of redemption. Or when we pass a homeless person on the street and pay them no heed, we pass by the erev rav, someone who may be different than us, but also part of our society. Failing to recognize that person’s need and answering by taking from our wealth and sharing it with them, we undermine the very act of redemption.

Without the erev rav, the Israelites too easily would have lost the understanding that all wealth is a gift, and failing to recognize that by diminishing it through helping the erev rav leads us not only to a state of loss but also a diminished sense of purpose.


חג שמח

(Based on a homily by Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar, Pesah # 10 in Divrei Yoel al Pesah, 17, 18)


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