Give Me Your Huddled Masses?
As we celebrate the Passover Seder, we tend to ignore a small but important detail in the actual Exodus story in the Haggada.
The Israelite journey out of slavery also inspired some budding opportunists to leave Egypt: “And the Children of Israel journeyed on foot from Ramses to Sukkot approximately 600,000…. A mixed multitude also went up with them….” (Exodus 12:37-38). Who were the “mixed multitude”? We don’t know exactly, but in a midrash, they were regarded as instigators. They seduced the Israelites into compromising their integrity in the golden calf incident and later prompted them to complain about the lack of meat in their desert wanderings. In a literal reading of the biblical texts, the mixed multitude were stragglers who joined the underdog in a moment of promise.
At times of strength and good fortune, others want in. Abraham set out for Canaan with his wife, family and new adherents in tow. But there, too, disagreements led to the splitting apart of Abraham and his nephew, Lot.
In the Book of Esther, when the Jews claimed victory, there were also those who sided with them: “And many people of other nationalities became Jews because the fear of the Jews had seized them” (Esther 8:17).
Some of these narratives suggest that our repeated command to be kind to strangers must be balanced by thoughtful consideration should those strangers decide to take up residence among us. Applied to the current Syrian refugee crisis, we must make sure that compassion and our social justice impulse do not minimize the complexity of this crisis. Beyond immediate lifesaving, there is also the need for social integration within the normative culture of the host country—language, education, culture and taxation—while not losing the ethos of one’s home country.
How well did these subgroups in the biblical accounts integrate? We don’t really know. There is only one biblical story where this information is clearly given. In the Book of Joshua, as the Israelites waged war against the tribes of Canaan, rumors quickly spread about their might and power.
One group used a strategy of deceit to spare themselves death: the Gibeonites. Disguised as ambassadors from a distant land, they appealed to Joshua’s compassion and he made a treaty with them. Joshua asked them two questions: “Who are you and where do you come from?” (Joshua 9:8). They lied. Later, when Joshua found out they were locals who tricked him, he allowed them to stay in the camp but at a very lowly status—as hewers of wood and drawers of water—perhaps reflecting the way deceit lowers us.
The Talmudic mandate “dina de-malkhuta dina”—the law of the land is law—underscores the obligation to be law-abiding citizens wherever we are. Reports of crime by and against refugees in European countries remind us that the socialization of such large numbers of people so quickly without the appropriate financial and structural support can result in abysmal failure.
The world is built on kindness, we are reminded in Psalms. As a people of compassion in a global landscape, we Jews must be a beacon to humanity. Saving lives is a commandment that precedes virtually all others. Welcoming the stranger is an important religious imperative. Making sure the stranger does not compromise the integrity of our community, as these biblical stories demonstrate, is also foundational to our master narrative.
We open our Seder night with an invitation to the stranger: Join us at the table. And, if you’re planning to stay, let us know who you really are and what you really want and need.
Erica Brown’s latest book is Take Your Soul to Work: 365 Meditations on Every Day Leadership (Simon & Schuster).