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Torah Commentary
Mas-ei (July 6, 2013)

Rabbi David M. Posner

CHAPTER 32 OF Parashat Matot gives us fascinating insight into the Jewish scale of values, the responsibility that groups and individuals must feel for the community at large, a leader’s role in formulating such values and responsibilities, and the methods the leader uses to communicate the values and responsibilities to the nation at large. The setting for this episode was the request that the tribes of Gad and Reuben be permitted to settle on the east bank of the Jordan (the land of Gilead) instead of crossing the Jordan with the other 10 tribes and settling on the west bank of the Jordan, that is the Land of Israel proper. Had it not been for this ultimately successful request, then the west bank would have been owned jointly by all the tribes.

Although the original claim to the land on the east bank came only from the tribes of Gad and Reuben, and the dialogue given at length in the chapter was only between them and Moses, half of the tribe of Manasseh — all of a sudden — was added to those who would share in the east bank territory. If Moses already had given to the children of Gad and the children of Reuben the east bank, then how and why did half the tribe of Manasseh get into the act?

There are several possibilities:

A: Seeing that the land of Gilead was too large for only two tribes, Moses may have asked if any other tribes preferred to settle there. In response, part of Manasseh volunteered, perhaps because they had abundant flocks.

B: Moses may have tried to avoid the danger that the two tribes on the east bank would tend to become isolated from the rest of the nation and fail to benefit from the greater holiness of the Land of Israel. By placing half of Manasseh there, Moses assured that the eastern part of Manasseh would maintain in close contact with their family to the west, and this closeness would have a beneficial effect on the tribes of Gad and Reuben as well. This was the view of the “Degel Machaneh Ephraim,” a Chasidic commentary on the Torah written by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudylkov (1748-1800), who was a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.

C: Moses insisted that the families of Manasseh settle in the east because no Jewish community can maintain its spiritual health unless it has outstanding figures to lead it. The tribe of Manasseh included such people, and Moses could not consent to the request of Gad and Reuben unless part of Manasseh would volunteer to live on the east bank and place their knowledge at the service of their fellow Jews. By doing so, Moses meant to set a precedent for the rest of Jewish history. God forbid we ever should be isolated from centers of Jewish learning! This was the teaching of the “Haamek Davar,” a commentary on the Torah by Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the head of the yeshivah of Volozhin in Russia, also known as “the Netziv.”

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