Michael Bernstein
Michael Bernstein

The rabble and the rabble rousers

Yair Lapid, newly installed as Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared that the Jerusalem Flag March neither represented Judaism nor Israel despite the waving of the flag with the Star of David that has come to represent just that. In doing so, he might as well have called the relatively small bunch of rabble rousers the erev rav, those mixed in with the multitude of Israelites who left Egypt. The erev rav is traditionally assigned the blame for the major incidents of rebellion and betrayal. The instigators of the Golden Calf, it is pointed out, are referred to by G*d as “your people whom you [Moses] led from Egypt.” In other words the riffraff you took along with My people. The complaints that are initiated against Moses in the wilderness are associated with the element at the “edge of the camp” not the heart of the people. Pointing to this rabble, this chaff among the wheat, allows the Rabbis to sidestep the great difficulty of seeing the desert generation as so consistently unworthy of the special mission given to them by G*d. Here too, Lapid and many others look at the Israeli flag being waved and declare the ones waving them to be just the bad bunch in the midst of the bounty that is the Jewish State.

It is worthwhile though to question not only Lapid, but the Rabbis employment of this explanation for the very acts that would otherwise characterize the Israelites. One of the phrases used to describe the erev rav in the midrash is the leaven in the dough, a parallel to the language used for the inclination toward corruption (the yetzer hara). One of the features of such an image is that there is no way to separate the fermenting agent from the rest of the mixture. This inseparability is also alluded to in the word erev and it’s many cognates. An eruv is a device used to blur the distinction between boundaries in time or space. The eruv surrounding an area turns what seems to be public space to a shared private one, the erev tavshiin made before a holiday allows cooking for the festival to include preparation for Shabbat as if they are one day. Erev is also the evening time as day gives way to night moving through a liminal time that is neither one nor the other.

So too here. Even as we may want to blame someone else for the shortcomings of our people and our national identity, we find ourselves relearning the profound lessons of the erev rav. Try as they might the Rabbis could not banish the malign influences to “the edge of the camp”

As often it does, the text offers a way forward. Several times we find the phrase “One Torah there shall be for the citizen and the sojourner” The most direct meaning here is that Jewish law should apply equally to any resident of the Israelite community. The implication though is that those residents, the mixed multitude recast, are part and parcel of the same Torah. That the Torah that inspires the erev rav is the same Torah that impels us to keep them at arms length. To use the language of Yair Lapid, the flag-wavers marching through the Muslim Quarter are part of both Jewishness and Israeliness. For those who find that repulsive we have to do more than just pretend they are aberrations. We have to recognize and understand the part they play in the mixture. After all kol yisrael aravim zeh bazeh, all of the people Israel are responsible, areiv, for each other. Even the erev rav.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta, Ga. Michael received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and is an alumni of the Rabbis Without Borders second cohort. and was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College. Michael specializes in Jewish philosophy, especially that of Emmanuel Levinas and focuses on how to see the directives inherent in Jewish tradition as meaningful, ethical, and relevant.
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