Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parshiot Mattot and Mas’ei 5775
A Lush Land
After countless delays, punishments and disappointments, as the Jews draw tantalizingly close to the Promised Land, a strange request is made by the tribes of Reuven and Gad:
They said, 'If you would grant us a favor, let this land be given to us as our permanent property, and do not bring us across the Jordan.' (B’midbar 32:5)
These words must have been particularly painful to Moshe: He pined and prayed for permission to cross into the Land of Israel, while these tribes, Reuven and Gad, seek permission to do just the opposite. They hope to remain outside the Land, on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.
Moshe’s initial response is far from enthusiastic, but subsequently terms and conditions are worked out to satisfy both sides: These tribes will take an active role in the conquest of the Promised Land, and only then will they return to the lush grazing land they have chosen outside of Israel proper.
The descendants of Gad and Reuven responded, 'We will do whatever God has told us. We will cross over as a special force to the land of Canaan, and we shall then have our permanent hereditary property on [this] side of the Jordan.' (B’midbar 32:31, 32)
Quietly, almost imperceptibly, when the deal is finalized, a third tribe materializes, and joins the other two tribes in Transjordan:
To the descendants of Gad and Reuven, and to half the tribe of Menasheh (son of Yosef), Moshe then gave the kingdom of Sichon (king of the Amorites) and the kingdom of Og (king of the Bashan). [He gave them] the land along with the cities along its surrounding borders. (B’midbar 32:33)
For some unexplained reason, a third tribe, Menasheh is included in this arrangement. The Torah offers no explanation; various commentaries have attempted to fill in the gaps. Ramban suggests that the tribes of Reuven and Gad initiated the broadening of their “coalition” in an attempt to ameliorate their feelings of isolation. A considerable number of the members of Menasheh were persuaded that the “REAL estate” already conquered by the Israelites on the eastern bank of the Jordan was preferable to the “theoretical” land that awaited them, as yet unconquered, on the other side. In Ramban’s view, Menashe joined the other two tribes in an arrangement motivated by greed; their only thought was of turning a “quick buck.”
An almost diametrically opposed explanation is offered by the famed Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin. In his view, the addition of the Menashites to this group was not initiated by any of the three tribes involved; rather, the “culprit” was Moshe himself. Moshe was the greatest leader of the Jewish People and as such, he was unwilling to leave part of his flock - especially those who seemed to be “ideologically challenged,” who preferred the anticipated profits from their flocks to life in the Holy Land – all alone outside the borders of Israel. Moshe chose a group of people whom he felt he could trust to be the spiritual leaders and teachers of this far-flung community. Moshe hoped that these descendants of Yosef would follow their forefather’s example, and take care of their brothers. He had faith in the power of Jewish community, and relied upon the mutual responsibility that members of all Jewish communities have to look after one another – socially and spiritually.
Was it greed or ideology, then, that led half the families of the tribe of Menashe to join those who chose the verdant lands outside of Israel? In either case, their social experiment was neither successful nor long-lived. When the Children of Israel were cast into exile, these two-and-a-half tribes were the first to be carried off into captivity, the first to be lost. The East Bank never became a place that could boast about its thriving, vibrant, Torah-centric community. In fact, the only thing they might have boasted about was their identification with the mysterious, unmarked grave of a great Jew who very much wished to cross the Jordan – the man who was outraged by their request to stay outside the Land: Tragically, Moshe, our greatest teacher and our most faithful shepherd, was forced to remain just beyond the border, together with a few tribes who were, just as tragically, indifferent.
For a more in-depth analysis see: