12.3. The Long-Awaited Exodus, and the “Mixed Multitude” (12:37-39)
(37) The Israelites journeyed from Raamses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children.
(38) Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.
(39) And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.
(37) From Raamses: Raamses was one of the “garrison cities” that the Jews built for the Egyptians (1:11).
To Succoth: The geographical location of this place is uncertain. But since we read a little later (13:20), “They set out from Succoth, and encamped at Etham, at the edge of the wilderness,” we can infer that Succoth is fairly close to the Egyptian border.
However, the fact that the identity of Succoth as an actual place is so unclear suggests that there might be a different, less literal way to understand this passage.
We note that in Lev. 23:42, when explaining the background for the festival of Succoth (Sukkot), the Torah says: “In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in succoth (literally, “huts”) when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
Thus, we can also understand “from Raamses to Succoth” as expressing contrast. They left Raamses, a city of Egyptian wealth and abundance, and set out for the wilderness – barren, austere, and unpopulated.
About six hundred thousand men on foot, aside from children: That is, there were that many adult men. If we consider also the women and children, the total number of Jews who left Egypt would be some three to four times greater, or as many as three million strong.
(38) Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them: This is the eirev rav, literally, “an enormous agglomeration,” but traditionally rendered into English as it is here: a “mixed multitude.” These were non-Jews who joined the Jewish people and left Egypt with them at the Exodus, and later became Jews.
The accession of proselytes to the Jewish people is extremely important in Judaism. As already mentioned, the Almighty’s original plan was for all of Egypt to become a part of (or, as it were, annexed to) the Jewish nation, in order to effect a complete yetzi’at mitzrayim – “the exodus of Egypt” from idolatrous practices. Although this did not actually happen, the Egyptians who joined the Jewish nation can be seen as partially realizing that plan.
The mission of the Jewish people is to bring all of humanity closer to God. The accession of proselytes creates a bridge between the Jews and the nations of the world, and Jewish ideas are transmitted to all of mankind through this bridge.
Even so, the accession of proselytes is far from an easy process. Often, proselytes will at first fall short in their understanding of the Jewish worldview (in fact, the Torah speaks to this point when it suggests that it was the “mixed multitude” who were behind the creation of the golden calf). But under no circumstances should the eirev rav be perceived as superfluous. Quite the contrary, they are a vital component of the Jewish people, without whom the Jewish mission cannot be realized.
(39) And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves: As already noted, this verse can be read in two different ways, as referring either to the Jews, or to the “mixed multitude.”