The sin of the Golden Calf
If we go back to Sefer Shmot, we find that the second time that the Erev Rav is mentioned in the Torah, it’s in connection with one of the most shameful episodes in the whole of Jewish history: While Moshe is up the mountain for 40 days, receiving the Torah and being given the first set of Luchot haBrit, or Ten Commandments, the people in the camp have grown tired of waiting for him to return, and have decided to take matters into their own hands, by making a Golden Calf.
At this point, God tells Moshe to go down, because 'your people have become corrupted'. Chazal explains that God is referring to the Erev Rav, the people Moshe accepted against God's advice.
God tells Moshe: "They have made themselves a molten calf…and they said, 'This is your god, O Israel'…I have seen this people, and behold! It is a stiff-necked people."
(Sforno and Ibn Ezra both explain that 'stiff-necked', or 'kesha oref' denotes stubbornness.)
The 'Am' that isn't 'Am Yisrael'
Chazal teach us that every time Israel is referred to as 'Am' in the Torah, as opposed to 'Am Israel', it's an illusion to the Erev Rav. That's why sometimes we find references to 'the people' in the Torah, and other times, references to the 'Children of Israel'.
If Bnei Yisrael had made the calf themselves, they would have said 'this is our god'. The Torah's language - together with a whole bunch of additional commentaries by our sages - makes it clear that the Erev Rav were responsible for leading the Am Yisrael away from the service of God, with devastating consequences.
Writing more than a thousand years’ after the episode of the Golden Calf, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the Tikkunei HaZohar 97a says:
"All the exile and the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (the Temple), and all the suffering, all of it came through Moshe's acceptance of the Erev Rav, and the wicked people and evildoers in each generation come from them, meaning from their souls, for they are reincarnations of those who left Egypt and this is what the Gemara (Beitza 32) refers to when it says:
"Anyone who does not have mercy on the creations is from the Erev Rav because (the trait of) rachamim (mercy, or compassion) is what Hashem gave to the Jews'."
Rashbi and the Gemara appear to be telling us very clearly that when someone acts in a cruel manner, as opposed to with compassion or mercy, we should suspect them of being ‘Erev Rav’. Again, just park this idea for now, as there’s a few more parts of the puzzle you need to have before we can really start pulling all the different strands together into a coherent picture, and discover what’s really going on with the Erev Rav.
Tikkun HaOlam and the 974 generations
If we return the Talmud, we find the next clue to what’s really going on with the Erev Rav in Chagigah 13b. We know that the Torah was given after just 26 generations from the creation of the world, dating from Adam HaRishon to Moshe Rabbenu. But in the Sefer Tehillim, (Book of Psalms), King David tells us that God was intending to give the Torah to mankind only after a 1000 generations - so what happened to the other 974?
The Gemara steps in to solve the riddle by telling us:
"These are the 974 generations that were decreed to be created before the creation of the world, but were not created. The Holy One, Blessed is He, arose and 'hangs' them in each generation, and they are the most brazen of each generation."
The word 'brazen' is a key clue to what's going on here, and we're going to meet it again later on, as go through many of the other holy works.
The Vilna Gao, explains in the first chapter of his book Sifra D'Tzniusa, that these 974 generations are the Erev Rav:
"The entire 974 generations which are the 'Erev Rav' which are the souls from the world of chaos (TOHU), God transplants them every generation, and they are the brazen-faced of the generation. Our sages said that in the period of 'Mashiach's footsteps' impudence will become great…and the Erev Rav will return to be the leaders of Israel."
The Vilna Gaon (or one of his very close students) is also purported to be the author of a book called Kol HaTor. In Chapter 2, Section 2, Letter bet or that work, it says the following about the Erev Rav:
"….the Erev Rav is our greatest enemy, the one who separates the two moshiachs. The klipah of the Erev Rav works only through deception and roundabout ways .Therefore, the war against the Erev Rav is the most difficult and bitterest of all. We must strengthen ourselves for this war, anyone who does not participate in the battle against the Erev Rav becomes, defacto, a partner with the klipah of the Erev Rav, and was better off not being born in the first place."
The author of the Kol HaTor is not mincing his words here, and the message is very clear: he believes that fighting the Erev Rav and splitting off from them is the only way we’re going to get redemption.
The Divre Simcha, on the Erev Rav
The Divre Simcha, Rabbi Simcha Issaschar Ber Halberstam also writes about the Erev Rav in a very similar tone:
"The root of our deficiency comes from what the Erev Rav do to us. As it is written in the Zohar: "They (the Erev Rav) damage Israel more than all the nations."
"And one has to strengthen oneself with great emuna (faith), because Israel was redeemed from Mitzrayim (Egypt) only in the merit of faith, and so it will be with the future redemption, that we will need great faith, because we will see how the ways of evildoers succeed.
"And even if we see in them (the Erev Rav) good things like Torah, and tradition, and good manners, and in particular, they make peace with everybody and peace is the foundation of everything, and it is a very good trait, even so, as in the case of a sick person that needs to have his blood extracted, even though the soul is in the blood, so it will be in the days prior to Moshiach."
"We must reject all these people even when they have good aspects in their behaviour, because then will be time of clarification and selection, and this will be the trial and choice in those days."
Who are the modern-day Erev Rav?
But while the Vilna Gaon and the Divre Simcha are giving us some very clear guidance on the need to split off from the Erev Rav, in practise, there are many difficulties with this idea. The main one is that it’s virtually impossible for us to really know ‘who’ we’re meant to be fighting against, or even, who the Erev Rav actually are, in our days.
Back in the desert, the distinction was clear: the people of Israel were literally a family unit, albeit a massively large one, and each of them could trace their lineage directly back to one of Yaacov’s 12 sons. By contrast, the Erev Rav were clearly converts of Egyptian descent, and were physically and culturally different.
But today, it’s not like that. Today, any Jewish person could potentially have an ‘Erev Rav’ soul, even if they have the longest beard, learn the most Torah, and come from a family with impeccable Jewish lineage. So how, exactly, are we meant to ‘fight’ the Erev Rav and split off from them, if we have no idea who they are?
This brings us to our second secret of the Erev Rav: Today, sparks of the ‘Erev Rav’ souls can be found in every Jewish family and every Jewish home, regardless of how externally pious or ‘frum’ they may be.
There is no distinct community, or Jewish population, that is obviously ‘Erev Rav’. Keeping mitzvoth is no guarantee that someone doesn’t have aspects of the ‘Erev Rav’ in their soul; and the opposite is also true. Just because someone is very far from Torah and mitzvoth, that doesn’t automatically mean that they are ‘Erev Rav’.
The truth is far more complicated and convoluted, as you’re going to discover.