Parshat Mattot: Mi Ya’aleh B’Har Hashem – Hearing the Echo of Diaspora’s Call

By a fluke of the calendar and my travel schedule, I got to hear Parshat Mattot twice – first in Israel, then in America. Parshat Mattot is a difficult one for those who have made Aliyah and like to stick their thumb in the eye of those of us who have not. Clearly, despite his initial misgivings, Moshe eventually comes to accept the request of Reuven and Gad to live away from their brethren on the eastern side of the Jordan for reasons that seem trivial at best. Finding the eternal message in this story, and applying it to our lives today, entails reflection and intellectual honesty.

In exploring the story of the tribes who are granted permission to live on the eastern side of the Jordan River at the end of Parshat Mattot, many questions emerge, specifically in regard to the presence of “חצי שבט מנשה,” “half the tribe of Menashe,” in the story:

1) Presence of Menashe: Strangely,”חצי שבט מנשה” does not appear in the story until 32:33, at the time that Moshe is actually giving the land to the separating tribes, long past the forging of the agreement with Reuven and Gad that they would first conquer the Land of Israel with their brethren and only then leave to settle east of the Jordan. Why the late entry of Menashe into the story? Are they, too, subject to the agreement made with the other two tribes which precedes their introduction into the narrative? What is the significance of their being referred to (32:33) as בן יוסף? In light of their being given land by Moshe in 32:33, why the need for them to conquer land in 32:39-41? Likewise, why the need for Moshe to approve of the conquering in 32:40 (as it seemed to be pre-approved), and why is he silent after Yair ben Menashe’s conquering of the villages in 32:41?

2) Makeup of Menashe: We are told that “חצי שבט מנשה,” “half of the tribe of Menashe,” will join Reuven and Gad. It is strange to see “half” of a tribe do anything, as a tribe is usually of a single destiny. But stranger still is the makeup of this “half.” As the Pesukim proceed, we find two sons of Menashe – Machir (32:39) and Yair (32:41) – conquering land of Gilad. A look back at the listing of the sons of Menashe in Parshat Pinchas (26:28-34) shows that the sons of Menashe are Machir and Gilad. Yair is not listed as a son of Menashe, but Gilad is both a son of Menashe (hence Machir’s brother) and a son of Machir. Remember that Gilad is also the name of the territory conquered by Machir and Yair in our story, at the end of Parshat Mattot. How did Yair become a member of the tribe of Menashe, and is Machir conquering his own son or brother, Gilad? And given that Menashe only has two sons, Machir and Yair would seem to represent 100% of the tribe, not 50%, unless we read the narrative as saying that half of the tribe (namely Gilad) is being conquered by his only legitimate brother Machir (the other half of the tribe) with help from Gilad’s familial replacement Yair. (Yair was actually from the tribe of Yehuda. Concerning his adoption into Menashe, see Ibn Ezra to 32:41.)

3) Novach: In the very last Pasuk of Parshat Mattot (32:42), a man named Novach (נֹבַח) conquers Kenat (קְנָת) and names it after himself. Who is this man, whose name does not appear anywhere else in Tanach? What tribe is he from? Does he have a mandate from Moshe to live east of the Jordan, or does Moshe at least approve of this land-grab post-facto as he does for Machir in 32:40? Rashi tells us that the absence of a dagesh in the word לה regarding the naming of the city indicates that the word should be read לא, because Novach’s renaming of the city was rejected and his sons reverted to the city’s original name of Kenat. Why would his own sons reject their father’s legacy? Compare this to 32:38, which emphasizes how successful Reuven and Gad were in renaming the cities that they conquered. Who is this mysterious man, what is his tribal affiliation and mandate to leave Israel, and why is he seemingly unsuccessful in doing so?

To begin with the end, some thoughts on Novach. Perhaps his lack of tribal affiliation is exactly the point. He is not a Reuvenite, a Gadite, or a Menasheite – he is an opportunist, a member of a different tribe who spies opportunity in the form of an easier life outside of Israel without the work of conquering the land as required of Reuven and Gad. He hitches a ride out of Israel on the coattails of Reuven and Gad, eager for a taste of the “good life” unencumbered by the Mitzvah obligations or military challenges that the Land of Israel entails. Unfortunately for Novach, his own sons turn their father’s legacy on its head, recognizing that he was a non-respectable sloth who sought the easy way out of a life in the Holy Land. His name may never appear before or after in Tanach, but it rings a bell:

אסתר פרק ג פסוק טו
הָרָצִים יָצְאוּ דְחוּפִים בִּדְבַר הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַדָּת נִתְּנָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן יָשְׁבוּ לִשְׁתּוֹת וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן נָבוֹכָה:

תורה תמימה הערות אסתר פרק ד הערה א
כי המלה “נבוכה” שבפסוק הקודם, הוי משמעה כאדם הנבוך ומבולבל מאיזו ידיעה בלתי ברורה, המפילה עליו אימים ולא ידע מה.

The Torah Temimah explains that the city of Shushan being נבוכה means that it was “like a man who is confused and bewildered and has a lack of clarity about a certain thing, which is causing him fear but which he is not fully aware of.” Novach of our story – like the classic nebach that his name would engender – stumbled through the darkness of his life seeking the easiest and most convenient road, the path of least resistance. His own children did not respect him, and his machloket with the rest of the Jews was אין סופו להתקיים, not destined to last (see Avot 5:17).

The moral of this story: Those of us who choose to live outside of Israel, particularly in our generation when it is relatively easy to live there, must make a regular accounting to ourselves as to what our reasons are for doing so and whether they meet objectively meaningful criteria. Certainly there are some among us who follow the path of Reuven and Gad, having made a reasoned decision based on discussion with an objective authority, as modeled by the tribes of Reuven and Gad who spoke to Moshe and whose renaming of Diaspora cities was successful. But from the size and health of Jewish communities all over the globe, particularly in America, nearly 70 years since Israel became a State, it is hard to believe that this is the case for many of us who continue to live in the Diaspora even now. For how long we can continue to follow the path of Novach without squandering our legacy is a question that should give us pause.

If Reuven and Gad stand on one end of the spectrum and Novach on the other, where does חצי שבט מנשה stand? What of their absence for most of the story? Why don’t they ask permission of Moshe to live outside of Israel? Perhaps the answer lies in their apparently superfluous description as בן יוסף. Their permission was not sought from or granted by Moshe because it had already been granted by their ancestor יוסף. Consider the emphasis on the birthplace of Yosef’s sons in their presentation to Yaakov:

בראשית פרק מח פסוקים ה-ו
וְעַתָּה שְׁנֵי בָנֶיךָ הַנּוֹלָדִים לְךָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, עַד בֹּאִי אֵלֶיךָ מִצְרַיְמָה, לִי הֵם אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה כִּרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן יִהְיוּ לִי
וּמוֹלַדְתְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹלַדְתָּ אַחֲרֵיהֶם לְךָ יִהְיוּ עַל שֵׁם אֲחֵיהֶם יִקָּרְאוּ בְּנַחֲלָתָם

Yaakov’s reason for selecting Ephraim and Menashe as his own is precisely their having been born outside of Israel; any later progeny who are born in Israel are less essential and are not to be considered as tribes. Yosef picks up on this theme and emphasizes his sons’ foreign birthplace in responding to Yaakov:

בראשית פרק מח פסוקים ח-ט
וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת בְּנֵי יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר מִי אֵלֶּה
וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אָבִיו בָּנַי הֵם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה וַיֹּאמַר קָחֶם נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרֲכֵם

Onkelos translates “בזה” as “הכא,” “here.” Once again, Yosef emphasizes the foreign roots of his sons on the precipice of their being blessed. The blessing itself demonstrates why their foreignness is an asset:

בראשית פרק מח פסוק טז
הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ

The identity of this ארץ is ambiguous – is it the Land of Israel or the entire earth? Onkelos explains:

תרגום אונקלוס בראשית פרק מח פסוק טז
מלאכא דפרק יתי מכל בישא יבריך ית עולימיא ויתקרי בהון שמי ושום אבהתי אברהם ויצחק וכנוני ימא יסגון בגו בני אנשא על ארעא

The charge to the sons of Yosef – who were born and raised in a foreign land – is to spread out over the entire earth and influence those whom they find there with a spark of spirituality. Like their father Yosef, who never tired of mentioning God in conversation with the pagans around him, it was the mission of his sons to spread out like fish all over the world and imbue Godliness in the hearts of everyone they might find. So it is that in our story, Menashe does not seek the permission of Moshe to live east of the Jordan, nor does Moshe feel the need to grant it, because they have already received that mandate from Yosef. Nor are they subject to the same agreement as Reuven and Gad, because their lack of participation in conquering the Land of Israel is not meanspirited or aloof. Their participation in conquest is expressed differently, as they crisscross the globe infecting all with Godliness. Unlike Reuven and Gad, whose reason for not living in Israel was more physical than spiritual, the people of Menashe are sheluchei mitzvah and not subject to the same agreement.

This begs the question that if both of Yosef’s sons were charged with the responsibility to stretch their legs and reach out to the world, why is Ephraim absent from our story here in Parshat Mattot? This, too, goes back to the origin story in Bereishit, when Reuven was speaking clandestinely to his brothers, unaware that Yosef could understand them:

בראשית פרק מב פסוקים כב-כג
וַיַּעַן רְאוּבֵן אֹתָם לֵאמֹר הֲלוֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר אַל תֶּחֶטְאוּ בַיֶּלֶד וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם וְגַם דָּמוֹ הִנֵּה נִדְרָשׁ
וְהֵם לֹא יָדְעוּ כִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יוֹסֵף כִּי הַמֵּלִיץ בֵּינֹתָם

Yosef strategically placed an interpreter between himself and his brothers, in an effort to carry on the ruse that he was not one of them and could not understand their Hebrew tongue. This interpreter, who knew both Hebrew and Egyptian and could relate to either camp, was none other than Menashe:

רש”י בראשית פרק מב פסוק כג
והם לא ידעו כי שומע יוסף – מבין לשונם ובפניו היו מדברים כן
כי המליץ בינותם – כי כשהיו מדברים עמו היה המליץ ביניהם, היודע לשון עברי ולשון מצרי, והיה מליץ דבריהם ליוסף ודברי יוסף להם, לכך היו סבורים שאין יוסף מכיר בלשון עברי
המליץ – זה מנשה

Thus it is not surprising that Menashe now is the branch of Yosef which presents itself at the opportune moment to join Reuven and Gad in living outside of Israel, in Menashe’s case to create a satellite location from which to promulgate the message of spirituality throughout the world.

The complexity of our relationship with the Land of Israel today has a long tradition. Nine and a half tribes fulfilled their God-given mandate to conquer and live in the Land of Israel. Two tribes sought and were granted permission to live outside of the Holy Land for reasons that seem fairly trivial – the better to graze their flocks. Half of one tribe followed a mandate from Yosef and Yaakov to serve as the outreach arm of the Jewish people, leaving Israel to imbue the rest of the world with the message of God. One man left Israel purely for the “good life” and left little to show for it – his own sons wrote their father off the page of history. Taken as a whole, our Parsha is not giving us an easy, one-size-fits-all directive for living in or abandoning Israel. What we are supplied with here is a series of guidelines for making that decision intelligently in our own lives. May we merit to make that decision wisely, honestly, and unselfishly.

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