“Ten miracles were done for our ancestors by the sea” (Avos 5:4). One of the ten miracles that occurred when G-d split the Red Sea so that the Children of Israel could cross on dry land was that it split into 12 separate paths, one for each of the 12 Tribes (Bartenura, Rabbeinu Yonah and Rambam; see also M’chilta B’shalach 4, Tanchuma B’shalach 10, Rashi on T’hillim 136:13 and Rabbeinu Bachye on Sh’mos 14:21). Which leaves us wondering how those who didn’t belong to a specific Tribe, such as the “Eirev Rav,” the “mixed multitude” of foreigners who left Egypt with the Children of Israel (see Rashi on Sh’mos 12:38), crossed. It also opens up the question of how the Tribes were configured. Did the Levi’im get to one of the paths first, forcing M’nashe and Efrayim to cross together as one Tribe? Did they count how many paths there were and realize that since there were only 12 the Levi’im must be getting their own path so we (M’nashe and Efrayim) must be reconfigured as “Yosef” until they get to the other side?
[In Appendix 86 of “B’tzaysi MiMitzrayim,” several Midrashim (e.g. Tanchuma, Bamidbar 12, Sh’mos Rabbah 20:5, Midrash Rabbah on Shir HaShirim 4:12, and Midrash Lekach Tov on Sh’mos 12:51) are quoted that seem to say that the D’galim were arranged right after we left Egypt. The travel-formation was already well-known from Yaakov’s instructions for carrying his casket from Egypt to Canaan (see Rashi on Bamidbar 2:2), so once the nation started their journey from Egypt to Canaan, they moved into this previously-known arrangement. Although these Midrashim can be (and are) explained in ways that allow the point of the Midrashim to be made even if the D’galim weren’t set up until the second year in the desert, a simple reading of at least some of them has the D’galim in operation right after the exodus, and there are commentators (e.g. Panim Yafos on Sh’mos 14:22; see also Chizkuni on Vayikra 24:10) who understand them this way. Which means that M’nashe and Efrayim were already separate and distinct Tribes when they got to the sea. Did they recombine just for the crossing and then split up again on the other side?]
As far as the “Eirev Rav” goes, there is an easy way around (pardon the pun) the issue, as some (e.g. Rambam on Avos 5:4 and Tosfos on Arachin 15a) are of the opinion that we came out on the same side of the sea that we entered, traveling in a semi-circle. If so, there was no need for the “Eirev Rav” to have crossed; they could have just waited on the same side until the Children of Israel re-emerged after their semicircular trip.
I discussed this opinion, including possible issues with it, several years ago (https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/parashas-beshalach-5772/). I also explained why I thought that they did cross the sea from end to end even though they didn’t have to, and in fact had already been on the other side (the eastern side) before doubling back to the western side in order to confuse Pharaoh. The bottom line, though, is that there is no need to cross the Red Sea in order to get from Egypt to the Sinai Peninsula. Therefore, even if there were only enough paths for the 12 Tribes, the “Eirev Rav” could have gone around the northern tip of the Gulf of Suez and met up with the Children of Israel on the other side. Or, since the Children of Israel had already been on the Sinai Peninsula before crossing the sea (See Bamidbar 33:6), and returned there after crossing it (33:8), only going back to the western side to trick Pharaoh into thinking they were lost, the “Eirev Rav” likely decided not to go back towards Egypt, and stayed on the eastern side to see how things developed. This not only helps explain why only the Children of Israel collected the “spoils by the sea” (as the “Eirev Rav” weren’t by the sea), but since the “Eirev Rav” was already on the other side waiting to see what happened, they didn’t need any path to cross.
Although this works for the “Eirev Rav,” it is unlikely that the Tribe of Levi didn’t cross with the rest of the Children of Israel, and a bit unusual (both logistically and conceptually) for M’nashe and Efrayim to have to have recombined into one Tribe just so that the number of paths could be kept at the magic number of “twelve.” (It is also unlikely that the number 12 isn’t meant literally, but euphemistically, meaning “one per Tribe,” and that there were really 13 paths through the sea.)
When the nation was camped by the sea (on the eastern side) before they crossed, there was a lot going on. There was a “rebellion by the sea” (T’hillim 106:7), with four different “groups” clamoring for a specific type of action (Mechilta B’shalach 2, Targum Yonasan 14:13); one said we should toss ourselves into the sea (either giving up, or putting themselves in G-d’s hands rather than the Egyptians,’ although Moshe responding to each of these groups indicates that this was not an act of faith), one said we should return to Egypt, one said we should fight them (the Egyptians) and one said we should scream (I guess to scare them away). Although Sefer Hayashar (which is quoted in traditional literature, such as Me’am Lo’eiz) lists which three Tribes belonged to each group, and Yosef was considered one Tribe and Levi another, this would seem to be an instance where the author of this book embellished a Midrash, as which Tribes were in which group is not mentioned in the original Midrash. [It should be noted that there are indications that M’nashe and Efrayim didn’t become fully separate Tribes until later, see the 7th paragraph of https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/parashas-vayechi-5774/), so Levi could still have been one of the 12 Tribes, which corresponds to the number of paths in the sea. Nevertheless, we are working with the opinion that the travel formation was already in place, so M’nashe and Efrayim were already fully separate Tribes.] If the Tribe of Levi was not part of any of these groups, they likely would have been working to calm the rebellion down, with different L’vi’im working with each of the four groups.
At the same time, there was another dispute between the Tribes, as each one wanted to be the first into the water (Soteh 36b-37a). [That some should be rebelling against Moshe (and G-d) while others were prepared to put their lives on the line for G-d is not surprising; Ramban (Sh’mos 14:10-12) also describes different “groups,” with some being righteous and others not so much.] In order to reconcile each Tribe wanting to jump into the sea before it split, including Binyamin not waiting until there was a resolution and going in first, with Nachshon ben Aminadav, from the Tribe of Yehudah, being the first one in (and several other issues), I have previously suggested (https://rabbidmk.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/pesach-5772b/) that Nachshon jumped in first, after which G-d caused the sea to split for him in the spot where he was. Seeing that the sea split for Nachshon (and before the rest of Nachshon’s Tribe followed him through the path created when the sea split for him), the Tribe of Binyamin jumped in, doing so at the spot on the seashore where they were, causing the sea to split there for them as well. The other Tribes then followed suit, jumping into the water where they were on the shore (as opposed to moving to where the sea had already split), with the end result being 12 paths, one for each Tribe. The desire by [some in] each Tribe to go into the water first led to each Tribe getting their own path through the sea.
Although it is possible that after this occurred the “Eirev Rav” saw the paths and followed them to the other side, which is less of an issue if the point was creating a path for each Tribe as opposed to having one for each (as the latter would mean that the path meant for a specific Tribe was being used by others, while the former just means that they used a path whose separate creation was meant to show appreciation for each Tribe’s willingness to go into the sea, and their desire to do so first), I still think that the “Eirev Rav” never went through the sea, but stayed on the eastern side when the Children of Israel went back to the western side. As far as the Tribe of Levi is concerned, though, I think it is possible that once paths were created for each of the Tribes, and the rebellion that the L’vi’im were trying to dissipate went away, each Levi crossed the sea through the path created for the Tribe they had been working with. The L’vi’im were too busy trying to end the rebellion to consider jumping in first, so did not get their own path, but were able to cross via the paths already created for the other 12 Tribes.