This week’s Shabbat Message is part of Great MetroWest NJ’s Bit of Torah program. A video of it can be seen here on Facebook.
My thanks to GMW for the invitation to be part of Bit of Torah.
This week we began our Passover festival by retelling the story of our ancestors’ escape from Egypt. And now, a week later, our festival of freedom is coming to an end.
As I look back over yitziyatt mitzrayim — the story of our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt — there is a small turn of phrase that always captures my imagination. We are told that when our ancestors left Egypt — gam erav rav alah itam — “and a mixed multitude went up with them.“
This phrase is often interpreted to mean that it wasn’t just the Israelites who left Egypt.
For example, the Reform Movement’s Plaut Commentary explains that the term refers to “non-Israelites, most likely members of other enslaved groups in Egypt.”
The Jewish Study Bible explains the term this way: “These were the people from the bottom of Egypt’s social strata who took the opportunity to escape from their fate.”
And biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman translates the phrase simply as “and also a great mixture had gone up with them.“
All these interpretations have one basic element in common – they all interpret this phrase to mean that there were non-Israelites who departed Egypt with our ancestors. That’s the mixed multitude of which they speak.
That may be the case, but I want to offer a different way of looking at it, particularly in light of the year we have all just endured.
When our ancestors were in Egypt they were slaves. The Egyptians told them what to do and when to do it. They had no freedom. They had no ability to create the lives they wanted for themselves and their children. They simply did what they were told to do.
They were literally living in mitzrayim – in a place of spiritual and emotional narrowness. They lived constricted lives because of their servitude.
When our ancestors crossed the yam suf — the Red Sea, or more accurately the reed sea — they became free. But they had no idea what it meant to be free. They’d been living in Egypt for 400 years. Not one of our ancestors who left Egypt had any concept of what freedom meant, let alone the responsibilities that accompany it.
And because they had been slaves their entire lives they didn’t know what it meant to be a community either. They were the mixed multitude. They were a group of people but they weren’t yet a community. It was only as they journeyed to Mount Sinai and beyond that they began to understand the Brit, the covenant with God, and with one another.
In other words, crossing the sea wasn’t the end of the journey, it was just the beginning.
We have been living in our own mitzrayim, our own “narrow place“ for over a year. We all thought the 2020 “Seder via Zoom” would be a one-time thing. It wasn’t. Because redemption — whether from slavery or a pandemic — arrives in its own time, which often takes far longer than we would prefer.
But we can finally see the other side. We can see liberation and freedom from the isolation and distancing we have endured. But just as our ancestors had to learn what it meant to be a community, we are going to have a learning curve as well. We aren’t going to simply return to the pre-pandemic world we left. That world is gone. And like our ancestors, we are going to have to rebuild our connections and our communities. And while that will be a challenge and will take longer than many of us might like, it presents us with an opportunity. We can take a critical look at the assumptions that guided our organizations and our lives prior to the pandemic and make changes that enrich us all. We can take the time to gain a better sense of our responsibilities to one another and make our synagogues and schools more welcoming and inclusive than ever. And we can remember that none of us would have made it through this year were it not for the support, the kindness and the love of others. Let’s remember that as we work together to build our new normal.
For just like our ancestors, our renewed freedom is not a right. It is a gift and an opportunity — a chance to build an even stronger community here in our corner of the Jewish world.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen
After a week of painful,heart-wrenching testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer charged in the death of George Floyd,
it is more important than ever to know where our Reform Movement stands and what we can do.
I encourage you to visit the Religious Action Center to learn more about racial justice
and other important areas of concern that must be addressed as we build our new normal.