Bo: Liberating the Mixed Multitude
In this week’s Torah portion (Bo), the Children of Israel finally escape Egypt bondage. But they weren’t the only ones fleeing Pharaoh:
A mixed multitude also went up with them (Exodus 12:38)
Commentators through the ages have had a lot to say about this mixed multitude (erev rav). Frankly, I find much of it to be, well, racist. But I see this verse in an entirely different way. For me, the mixed multitude represents something more than people: It is a description of the contents of my mind.
Bo and the liberation of the mind
The Piaseczna Rebbe observed that once you start investigating your own mind, you realize that there is little difference between you and a madman. He was right.
When I finally developed the concentration skills that made I possible for me to watch my thoughts, I discovered some surprising content. Apparently, I’m capable of thinking pretty much anything. Racist thought? Yup. Ugly, hateful, violent thoughts? Uh huh. Things that express belief that I don’t think I have or want to have? They show up too.
Of course I also think loving, compassionate and grateful thoughts. And then there are the completely random things like song lyrics, irrelevant judgments and fragments of conversations real or imagined. But here’s the interesting thing: I only count the thoughts I like as “me” or “mine.”
I like certain thoughts because they reinforce the story I tell myself about myself. The rest of my thoughts are a kind of white noise to be ignored or dismissed. And that is neither liberating nor useful.
To free yourself, you must see yourself
The thoughts that we ignore, dismiss or fail to see are not harmless. They are glimpses of our unconscious beliefs, and whether we know it or not, they influence the way we experience just about everything.
Social science researchers call them implicit attitudes, and they have designed a number of tests to reveal them. Among the best known are the Harvard Implicit Association Tests (IAT), and you can take one or more of them here. I like to think I know my mind pretty well, and in many respects, I do. But these tests revealed a number of assumptions that had been hidden from my conscious awareness. And because they can influence my behavior, it’s especially important that remain vigilantly mindful of them.
One law for them all
A little later in chapter 12, Bo has something more to say about the way one should engage the mixed multitude:
One instruction shall there be for the native and for the sojourner who sojourns among you. (Exodus 12:49)
I understand this additional verse to as an instruction for contemplative practice. Instead of accepting some thoughts and ignoring others, I should treat all thoughts in exactly the same way. Each one should be seen and acknowledged and brought into conscious awareness. This includes the thoughts I like and the thoughts I don’t like, the recurring thoughts, and the fleeting mental impressions. Because the only way to overcome the biases that shape our words and actions is to see, acknowledge and guard against them.
May you be blessed…
May you be blessed to know your mind. May you see what needs to be seen and have the courage to acknowledge and accept it. And may we all remember that none of us are free until all of us are liberated.
Ameyn, ken yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.