According to the "quotes" section of Goodreads.com, it was E. B. White who said, "Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process."
So, like any joke, this one will be a dead frog once I try to explain it – but since it's rather "inside baseball," I suspect many readers won't understand it without an explanation:
Rabbinical students in their final year of rabbinic training sometimes refer to themselves (or are referred to by others) as "erev rav."
In Hebrew, "erev" means evening, and can also, just like the English "eve," mean the time just before and leading up to something – for example, the day or the evening before, as in "New Year's Eve." Friday, and not just Friday night after sunset, is often referred to in rabbinic and later Hebrew as "erev Shabbat." A rabbinical student in his or her last year of training is on the eve of becoming a "Rav," a rabbi.
But what makes this (at least sort of) humorous also depends on familiarity with a verse in this week's parashah, Ex. 12:38:
Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.
In Hebrew, the term for "mixed multitude" is "erev rav." "Erev" here is a homonym (a word that sounds, and may even be spelled the same as another, but has a different, unrelated meaning) to the word that means "evening"; in this case it is from a root ( ayin, resh, vet) that means "mixed." "Rav" means "many" or "great," hence in this context, "multitude."
Okay, so maybe you still don't quite get it…
The final piece one needs is to know something about who this "mixed multitude" was, or at least who the rabbis thought they were. From a historically-minded perspective, it's reasonable to imagine that other persons and groups who were oppressed by the Egyptian system of feudalism and slavery took the exodus of the Israelites as a chance to also liberate themselves. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, editor of one of the Torah commentaries (The Torah: A Modern Commentary) in common use in Reform communities, identifies them in this way: "These were people from the bottom of Egypt's social strata who took the opportunity to escape from their fate." In rabbinic and later Jewish tradition, however, the "mixed multitude" is frequently seen as a source of trouble and discord for the Israelites during their time of wandering in the wilderness. As the Conservative commentary, Etz Hayim, observes "the Hebrew word translated as ‘mixed multitude'…is from the same root …as the plague in 8:17…" – i.e., the plague of "arov," typically understood as either attacks from various wild beasts, or swarms of varying insects. One particularly common recurring midrashic tradition has it that it is the mixed multitude – and not the Israelite members of the community – who instigate the sin of the creation and worship of the Golden Calf.
The joke, then, is that rabbinical students are associating themselves (or are being associated) with a subversive element in the Jewish community from its formative moments of creation as a nation.
But this is a negative, and even destructive form of subversion, one that sows sin and dissention. There is another way to understand the erev rav and their participation in the Exodus from Egypt. According to the "under the line" commentary on this verse in Etz Hayim, which is in turn built on a midrashic tradition in Exodus Rabbah (18:10 as far as I can tell, though Etz Hayim says 18:8), Egyptian society was divided into three different attitudes about how to respond to Moses and the demand to end the slavery of the Israelites:
- "One third wanted to keep the Israelites as slaves. They died in the plagues."
That is, there were those who wanted to continue to hold the Israelites in bondage, who apparently saw nothing wrong with the structure of their society. I would also note that just above in this same passage is a midrashic tradition that intriguingly adds that not all those in the first group were those who most stood to benefit from the enslavement and oppression of another people. The text notes that the account in Ex. 12:29 (see also 11:5) states that those struck by the final plague ranged from "the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon…" Granted that Pharaoh is guilty as the first and foremost defender of the oppression nature of the society he ruled, but why the captive, a seeming victim rather than perpetrator of that oppression? But the midrash says even such a person might refuse his/her own liberation if it would help the Israelites be free (translation taken from Sefaria.com):
He killed the firstborn of the captives; since they said to the captive that was imprisoned in the jail, "Do you want to go out and the Jews will [also] be delivered?" And he would say, "We will not ever leave from here in order that Israel not go out." That is why He judged them with [the Egyptians] – "from the firstborn of Pharaoh... to the firstborn of the captive."
- "A second group supported Israel's bid for liberation and rose in revolt against Pharaoh's stubborn policies. These were the Egyptians who gave Israel gold, silver, and jewels as they prepared to leave…"
Some wanted the Israelites free – but one gets the sense that this was because holding the Israelites as slaves had become too onerous on themselves. The midrash quotes verses 30 and 33 in regards to this group:
"because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead… The Egyptians urged the people on, impatient to have them leave the country, for they said, ‘We shall all be dead.'"
This group rises with violent intent against Pharaoh on account of the plagues that have afflicted their community. What is more, it appears that what they want most is for the problem - and what they see as the cause of the problem (that is, the Israelites) – to simply go away.
But then there is the last group:
- "A third group of Egyptians celebrated the Pesah with Israel, and then left with them…"
In fact, the midrash refers to this group – who throw their own lot in with the Israelites, who join them in the first Paschal sacrifice and even leave Egypt with them – explicitly as k'sheirim, "proper ones." In this midrash, the erev rav come in for the highest praise of all.
So, finally, here's my take on Etz Hayim's take on Exodus Rabbah. It poses a profound moral question. How do we respond when someone or some group other than ourselves is being systematically oppressed within our society - when we may even stand to benefit (deliberately or incidentally) from that oppression, as the Egyptians did from the free labor provided by Israelite slaves? Even if we are clear that do not wish to align ourselves with oppressive policies, even when we stand in opposition, we are still faced with a choice. Do we only notice the problem when it impinges on us? Is it sufficient to want to make the problem go away, to put it out of sight, even if we give up some of our material wealth to make that happen? The midrash suggests there is another, deeper and harder way, but one whose practitioners are the true "proper ones."
What does it take to actually join with the oppressed, to throw our lot in with theirs, to participate direct and bodily in the struggle for justice and liberation? Reading this commentary, I found myself thinking of people we regularly venerate, like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel standing arm in arm with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and with all those who came to march, at great personal risk, in Selma. Like the many "freedom riders" who travelled to places where Jim Crow laws were in effect to fight segregation, register voters, and so on – some of whom were jailed, beaten, or even lost their lives in the effort. Like those who hid Jews in their homes and other places during the Shoah, or who operated "stations" on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves in pre-Civil War America. And so on…
We treat people who take this path as heroes, because most of us find this path too hard to follow ourselves. This path asks us to be ready to give much more than our material goods. To follow this path, we must be prepared to put our bodies on the line. To sacrifice what is familiar and comfortable to us, not just things but a way of living, sometimes even our freedom or our lives.
Yet as difficult as this path is, my hope for the rabbinical students I teach – and for myself, and my colleagues even if it has been many years since we were still waiting our turn to be ordained – is that we will always understand that our rabbinic calling is, at its most potent, to be erev rav. Indeed, it is an ideal – albeit a difficult one – for any and all of us, if we are heroic enough to rise to it.