In this week’s dramatic Torah portion, the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt is described for us.
The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the LORD had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians. And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. (ESV)
How interesting that the Egyptians could not wait to get rid of the Hebrews after the plagues had devastated their nation. Yet shortly after they left, Pharaoh experienced a change of heart. His army of slave labor was gone; now his own people would have to do the work. But even more, how humbling it must have been to Pharaoh, who believed himself a god, to be so utterly defeated by the God of the Hebrews!
In verse 38, it is noted that a mixed multitude left with the Israelites, most likely because they had witnessed what had happened and knew the Hebrews were blessed by their God. But let’s be frank: they had also seen the devastation of Egypt and the protection that surrounded the Hebrews. Who wouldn’t want to align himself with those untouched by the terrible plagues?
Some commentaries opine that the mixed multitude were responsible for the sin of the Golden Calf later. However, a closer look at the text begs the question:
Numbers 11:4-5 Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. (ESV)
Note that we are specifically told the people of Israel were directly involved, so the blame cannot be placed solely on the mixed multitude. The mention of the mixed multitude here raises another issue – Judaism’s attitude towards the Gentiles.
Israel has received the covenant of Torah from the Lord at Mount Sinai through Moses, BUT there has always been room for people from the Nations (Goyim) to join the people of Israel. Ruth is a very prominent example of this, as is Rahab from Jericho. Caleb is from the tribe of Judah, but his father is described as being a Kenizzite in Numbers 32:12. Throughout history, Judaism has taught that the ‘convert stands in a place before the Most High that the natural born Jew cannot stand.’ The Torah also enjoins us to ‘love the proselyte’ and show them kindness and respect. In fact, the Torah admonishes us to respect all peoples.
Another lesson to be drawn from this week’s reading deals with education. Moses took pains to make the Hebrews understand that freedom is won, not on the battlefield, nor in the political arena, nor in the courts, national or international, but in the human imagination and will. To defend a country you need an army. But to defend a free society you need wholesome families and an educational system in which ideals are passed on from one generation to the next, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured.
Lastly, true freedom is the ability to control oneself without having to be controlled by others. Without accepting voluntarily a code of moral and ethical restraints, liberty becomes license and society itself a battleground of warring instincts and desires.
This idea was first articulated by Moses in his words to the assembled Israelites. He was telling them that freedom is more than a moment of political triumph. It is a constant endeavor, throughout the ages, to teach those who come after us the battles our ancestors fought, and why, so that freedom is never taken for granted.
In Tune with Torah this week = there are many lessons in this week’s Torah reading. The few we’ve mentioned provide more than enough material for meditation and prayer. Do we understand true freedom? Are we grateful for it? Do we teach out children the high price that was paid by previous generations to win freedom? Most of all, do we treasure the freedom of soul that is the fruit of an intimate relationship with the God of all the earth? There is no greater freedom than that of the inner spirit.