Parshat Matot-Masei: Moshe the Bridge Builder

Parshat Matot-Masei: Moshe the Bridge Builder

Rabbi Dov Kaplan

Rabbi Dov Kaplan is an alumnus of Yeshivat Hamivtar who served as a rabbi in Cali, Colombia; Kibbutz Bet Rimon; Caesarea, and Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London. Currently back home in Tekoa, Israel, Rabbi Kaplan works for the UK’s United Synagogue and the Tzohar Rabbinic Association.

Thank God Moshe our leader was in excellent health in his advanced age. The parsha tells us that two tribes of Israel, Reuven and Gad, approached Moshe with a request to remain on the other side of the Jordan River.

Incredulously, after 40 years in the wilderness and now on the cusp of entering the Promised Land, they declare that they have no wish to cross over. The shock upon hearing such a seditious request would have been potentially harmful to even a much younger man.

In response, Moshe rebukes them for separating themselves from their brethren in the coming campaign for conquest of Canaan. He accuses them of nurturing a rebellion like the spies 38 years earlier. After making their biased report, the People panicked and were subsequently punished to wait until the entire generation died out.

On a personal level, Moshe had only recently learned that, tragically, he himself would not be allowed to lead the People into the Land. How Reuven and Gad’s disregard of the Land must have rankled him.

Although it is obvious that Moshe considers their plan a terrible one, he negotiates with them. Finally, once the two tribes have accepted his conditions, Moshe accedes to their request. It is agreed that if they join the rest of the tribes until after the conquest of Canaan is complete, then and only then will they be awarded the territories east of the Jordan. As the verse states:

Moses gave them, the descendants of Gad and the descendants of Reuben and half the tribe of Menashe the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og, king of Bashan the land together with its cities within borders, the cities of the surrounding territory. (Bamidbar 32:33)

Anyone following the story will undoubtedly notice the surprisingly inclusion of “half the tribe of Menashe”. From where did they suddenly appear?

 From the initial request and throughout the negotiations there was no mention of Menashe.

There are various proposed answers, but the most surprising approach suggests that Moshe “volunteered” families from Menashe to join the other 2 tribes. He instructed them to make their homes on the other side of the Jordan.

This explanation indeed solves one problem, but raises an even greater question. How is it that Moshe, who found the request by Gad and Reuven so repulsive, would then ask half the tribe of Menashe to join the others beyond the Jordan? Had Moshe changed his mind?

In order to answer this new problem, we need to fully consider the reasons for Moshe’s resistance to their request.

On the matter of weakening the resolve of the other tribes Moshe has addressed the issue by demanding that Reuven and Gad join the troops in the upcoming battles with the Canaanite nations.

Yet he was still concerned regarding the long-term risks of them settling on the east bank. By allowing them to establish their homes far from the other tribes, the danger of them growing apart from the rest of the nation became a serious concern. He foresaw that the physical distance could foster an emotional and spiritual estrangement within the family of Israel. 

In the Book of Yehoshua we read that both the western and the eastern tribes were concerned with this problem. When they threaten to attack the two and a half tribes who had built a (forbidden) altar in their territory, Reuven, Gad and Menashe explain why:

“that your children should not say to our children in the future: “You have no share in Hashem.” ( 22:27)

Moshe, in his wisdom, realized that he must create a bond or a bridge to join together the tribes on both sides of the Jordan. But who to send? It was imperative to find the right candidate for the job.

One tribe stood out: Menashe. Their love for the Land is demonstrated in Parshat Pinchas through the supplication of the righteous Daughters of Tzlophchad of Menashe who wished to inherit the portion of their deceased father in the Holy Land. (Chapter 27).

In Parshat Masei (Chapter 36), our 2nd parsha in this week’s double-header, the elders of Menashe remonstrate with Moshe that their portion of the Land will be diminished if the Daughters of Tzlophchad marry outside the tribe. Our sages understood that they, too, were motivated by their love of the Land.

Besides being lovers of Eretz Yisrael we can learn from the end of Parshat Matot that the tribal members of Menashe were also courageous and mighty warriors. After settling matters with Moshe, the Torah writes that Reuven and Gad built cities for their families, while the Menasheites did battle and conquered (32;34-31).

Additionally, we are told in the Book of Shoftim (Chapters 11-12) that Menashe joined Yiftach in his war with the Ammonites contrary to others who did not.

Rabbi Naftali Z. Y. Berlin (d. 1893) proffered another suggestion for Moshe’s choice. He wrote that Menashe was chosen because they were great Torah scholars. (Ha’amek Davar to Devarim 3:16)

From all the above, we can appreciate why Moshe chose to include half of the tribe of Menashe east of the Jordan. They were men of courage, lovers of the Land of Israel and of the Torah.

There is one more essential tribal characteristic that I learned about from my great mentor, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, years ago in a shiur delivered in our rabbinic training program in Yerushalayim.

He pointed out to us that the ‘original’ Menashe, the son of Yosef, is the first brother in the Torah who, for the sake of shalom bayit (peace at home), ignores his pride and jealousy.

In the final parsha of Breishit, the Torah tells us of the blessings Yaakov bestowed upon his two grandsons, Efraim and Menashe. Yosef, their father, positioned them according to birth. Menashe, the eldest stands to the right of Yaakov and Efraim, the junior, to the left.

Curiously, before reciting the blessings, their grandfather crosses his hands over, placing his right hand on the younger boy and his left on the older one. The significance of this is not lost on Yosef who attempts to correct his elderly father. But Yaakov responds:

  “I know, my son, I know; he too will become a nation, and he too will be great. But his younger brother will be greater than him…” (48;19)

Menashe, being the eldest, had every right to feel rancour upon hearing this. Yet he holds his tongue, accepts the order as described and seems to hold no ill feeling toward his younger brother. (Moshe could especially appreciate this vis-a-vis his older brother, Aharon.)

Menashe understood, Rabbi Riskin taught us, the principle of ‘gadol hashalom’, “peace is great”.

In an attempt to connect the tribes east of the river with the rest of the nation on the west, Moshe chose the tribe of Menashe, to bridge the gap between the two parts of the House of Israel.

Their tribal traits made them his obvious choice, for a person who wishes to be such a connector needs not only to love the Land of Israel and the Torah, but must essentially love the People of Israel.

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