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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach D'varim

Parashat Devarim

Waiting For What is Half Yours

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The matter of the settling of half of the Tribe of Menashe on the east bank of the Jordan is one of the Torah’s great riddles. The general idea is mentioned a few times, but its background is not clearly explained.

Only the Tribes of Reuven and Gad are reported to have requested a portion of land in that region. They were initially met with Moshe’s sharply negative reaction, calling them "a culture of sinful people." How then was Menashe able to arrange things so smoothly? The Netziv posits that Moshe initiated the matter in order to try to strengthen the religious level of the settlement of the East Bank and that parts of the Tribe of Yehuda were also involved.

However, if we search for scriptual hints, we may be able to suggest a different, novel thesis. The Tribes of Reuven and Gad were relegated to the other side of the Jordan not just per their request. Rather, it was appropriate for them to be away from the rest of the tribes, because they were firstborn who were pushed off from using that status. Reuven was Leah’s firstborn, and Gad was Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant’s first. What about Menashe? Menashe was also pushed out of the status of firstborn, as Yaakov delegated special prominence to his younger brother, Ephrayim. Yet Mehashe did not just have the status of Yosef’s less prominent son. Rather, Yaakov had given the two of them a special status as his honorary sons, not grandsons. In that way, Menashe is not the firstborn of Yosef, meaning that he was pushed off, but a regular son of Yaakov. Since there are two ways to look at the matter, half of Menashe received a normal portion of land in Eretz Yisrael, and half received a portion among the pushed-off firstborns.

The idea of pushing off the firstborn who was not destined to have that status was known from the time of the forefathers. The only complaint against Reuven and Gad was that they did not wait for the Land’s capture and division along with the rest of the nation before claiming their portion. Bnei Menashe did not prematurely request their portion and, therefore, Moshe gave it to them without criticism.

Furthermore, it appears that the sons of Menashe, lead by Yair and Machir, treated this section of the East Bank as belonging to them from the time that Yosef was viceroy in Egypt. This is hinted at in our parasha. The pasuk says: "Yair ben Menashe went and took ... and called the Bashan on his name, Chavot Yair, to this very day" (Devarim 3:14). What does it mean, "to this very day"? After all these events seem to have happened in the time that Sefer Devarim was written. Yet the words imply that they happened long before. We may then assume (an idea that has other indications) that the parts of Menashe took areas of the east bank of the Jordan long before. It was thus natural that Moshe should assign those areas to these families as the nation prepared to enter the Land. (See Y. Kil’s introduction to Da’at Mikra of Divrei Hayamim).

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