THe MIxed Multitude
In the Torah, the "mixed multitude" is considered both dangerous and praiseworthy - but in either case, they are "other." How should we think of a single individual that comes from this group, and how might that apply to the way we think of people today? It can be easy to conflate a person with the group they're a part of, but often that's the easy (and wrong) way to judge others.
Look a Little Closer, See the Trees in the Forest
In this week’s Torah portion, the Ten Plagues reach their magnificent climax, leaving Egypt desolate and bereft. The Egyptians, finally, “urged the people on, impatient to have them leave the country” (Ex. 12:33); and after 430 years in Egypt, the Hebrews finally made it out.
But they didn’t go alone. We read וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב עָלָה אִתָּם, “A mixed multitude also went up with them” (Ex. 12:38). We are not told who this “mixed multitude” contained or why they left, leaving interpreters to fill in the gaps. Commentators generally agree that the “mixed multitude” refers to foreigners who had joined the Hebrew people, perhaps through conversion (Rashi) or intermarriage (Shadal). This interpretive tradition reads the “mixed multitude” as gerim, “strangers” who took up permanent residence among the People of Israel.
Our parashah is conflicted about how to think about these resident aliens. On the one hand, they are considered to be equal in almost every way, instructed, for instance, to observe Passover just like their Israelite neighbors; as God commands: “There shall be one law for the citizen and for the stranger who dwells among you” (Ex. 12:49). The freedom of this exodus is to be celebrated by the Hebrews as well as the “mixed multitude” who accompanied them.
On the other hand, their freedom isn’t quite on par with the Hebrews’. They are included in the Passover celebration, yes … and so are the Israelites’ own slaves. וְכָל עֶבֶד אִישׁ מִקְנַת-כָּסֶף, “Any householder’s purchased slave may eat of [the Pesach] once he has been circumcised” (Ex. 12:44). The Hebrew legal tradition would outlaw the enslavement of one Israelite by another, so this text comes to be understood as referring only to foreigners. “Do not oppress the stranger nor wrong them” (Ex. 22:20), we are commanded; and yet, the Torah says, you may hold them as slaves.
Clearly, our community long ago abandoned the practice of slavery, just as we have moved on from animal sacrifice, polygamy, and public stonings. But the principle on display here, the distinction between us and them remains an unresolved conflict. To this day, we struggle to define who counts as “fully in” and who remains safely at a distance. I can’t offer a neat answer to this conundrum because there isn’t one. But I do think that our sacred texts help us navigate challenging issues of ethics and inclusion. In particular, one individual’s riveting and complex story reveals how complicated identity can be.
Our story begins with Moses.
Raised by an Egyptian mother in an Egyptian household, the adult Moses first enters the scene to see an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. We know that the story quickly proceeds to Moses striking and killing the Egyptian and, later, fleeing to save his own life.
But the midrash slows down and fills in the gaps. This Egyptian taskmaster, the story goes, committed the age-old crime of having his way with a female slave. This woman, taken against her will, was called Shelomit, the daughter of Dibri; and the taskmaster learned that Shelomit’s husband suspected him. So he began to beat her husband to death. This is the scene that Moses encountered, and he intervened to save Shelomit’s husband.
Fast forward 40 years or so. Since national identity was patrilineal in those days, Shelomit’s now-adult son couldn’t be a full-fledged Hebrew. He was, instead, part of the “mixed multitude.” Nevertheless, he knew who his people were; and he escaped Egyptian slavery with them when Moses rescued him—along with all Israel—once again.
Another midrash picks up the story: This man, whose mother was from the tribe of Dan, sought to pitch his tent among their ranks. The Danites said to him, “What right do you have to pitch your tent in the camp of Dan?” He replied, “I am descended from the daughters of Dan.” They answered that tribal portions followed house of the father, so he appealed before the court of Moses.
And now we turn to the Torah itself. In Leviticus, Chapter 24, we read:
There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between the son of an Israelite woman and a certain Israelite. וַיִּקֹּב ... אֶת־הַשֵּׁם וַיְקַלֵּל, “And the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the divine name in blasphemy” (Lev. 24:10-11).
Why did our half-Israelite, this stranger in the midst of the Hebrews, blaspheme God? Because, the midrash tells us, when he appealed his case to Moses and petitioned to be included in the tribe of Dan, he lost his case. Certain that he was right, the half-Israelite cursed God.
Was he justified in his blasphemy? I think, perhaps, he was. And what’s more, I think Moses might have thought so, too. Moses doesn’t know what to do with the man at first; he has to appeal to God for a ruling. God instructs Moses to have the man stoned, and God says, moreover, “Anyone who pronounces the [divine] name shall die” (Lev. 24:16). But even this can’t be entirely clear-cut; after all, the very next law is, “Any person who strikes [and kills] a human being shall be put to death” (Lev. 24:17). Since Moses himself would fall into that category, he must have known that gray areas exist. Why couldn’t one be found for the hapless son of Shelomit bat Dibri?
My professor of Hebrew literature in rabbinical school and a master of midrash herself, Wendy Zierler, writes of this story:
Is it possible that … [Moses] recognizes in this story of an unnamed half-Egyptian, half-Israelite son his own story of a mixed Hebrew/Egyptian upbringing, of going out and winding up in a fight that goes very wrong? Is it possible that Moses sees the violence of his own past in this half Egyptian, and finds himself caught between a sense of empathy and the need to protect the honor of God?
It won’t surprise you that I think it is possible. I think it’s likely that Moses had grave reservations about the treatment of this member of the “mixed multitude.” Indeed, I believe this story influenced Moses when a similar claim is brought before him later on. Five sisters—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophechad—petition for a change in the laws of tribal inheritance. And this time, they win their case. The lines of “who’s in” and “who’s out” shift, and the personal story of each character affects the final result.
If there’s an overarching lesson in this painful story, perhaps it is this: It is never sufficient to lump a person in with their group without considering them as an individual first. Questions of identity and belonging and how we should treat one another cannot be summarized and applied en masse. In many ways, each of us can see ourselves as part of the “mixed multitude;” we look with compassion on the stories of Shelomit’s son and the daughters of Zelophechad. And when we find ourselves in positions of influence or authority, when we are faced with the decision to let someone in or to keep them out, we do well to take to heart Moses’ sympathy and concern.
As we celebrate our own freedom of practice and thought, as we rejoice in the communities who accept us for who we are, let us endeavor to expand that privilege as broadly as possible. May the “mixed multitudes” of our own day find common cause together, and may we work in unity toward shared goals of togetherness and acceptance.
 ערב רב זה היה מעורב עמהם מלפנים והם מצריים שנשאו ישראליות ומצריות שנישאו לישראלים והם הם האספסוף. Samuel David Luzzatto, known as Shadal, bases this reading on Neh. 13:3, a connection which Rashi also notes in his commentary there.
 Shemot Rabbah 1:28.
 See Rash in Ex. 2:11.
מכה איש עברי. מַלְקֵהוּ וְרוֹדֵהוּ. וּבַעְלָהּ שֶׁל שְׁלוֹמִית בַּת דִּבְרִי הָיָה וְנָתַן עֵינָיו בָּהּ, וּבַלַּיְלָה הֶעֱמִידוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוֹ מִבֵּיתוֹ, וְהוּא חָזַר וְנִכְנַס לַבַּיִת וּבָא עַל אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּסְבוּרָה שֶׁהוּא בַעְלָהּ, וְחָזַר הָאִישׁ לְבֵיתוֹ וְהִרְגִּישׁ בַּדָּבָר, וּכְשֶׁרָאָה אוֹתוֹ מִצְרִי שֶׁהִרְגִּישׁ בַּדָּבָר, הָיָה מַכֵּהוּ וְרוֹדֵהוּ כָּל הַיּוֹם
 Sifra Emor 14.
ויצא בן אשה ישראלית מנין יצא מבית דינו של משה שבא ליטע אהלו בתוך מחנה דן, אמרו לו מה טיבך ליטע בתוך מחנה דן, אמר להן מבנות דן אני אמרו לו הכתוב אומר איש על דגלו באותות לבית אבותם יחנו בני ישראל, נכנס לבית דינו של משה ויצא מחוייב ועמד וגידף.
 “A Tribute to the Blasphemer's Mother: Shelomit, Daughter of Divri.” https://www.thetorah.com/article/a-tribute-to-the-blasphemers-mother-shelomit-daughter-of-divri.
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