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Our Brother’s Keepers

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Jul 22, 2011

As Sefer Bamidbar draws to a close, a potential schism in the Jewish people is confronted. Their sojourn in the desert is almost complete and the people are primed and undoubtedly excited to finally enter Eretz Yisroel. And then, shockingly, representatives of the tribes of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe to request that they be allowed to settle in the fertile plains of the east bank of the Jordan River and not enter Israel (Bamidbar 32:1-5). One can only imagine the sense of hurt and betrayal that the rest of the nation must have felt upon hearing this request and, in fact, Moshe’s initial response reflects these emotions. Only after questions about Reuven and Gad’s sense of loyalty and duty – “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you settle here?” – were answered does Moshe ultimately grant the two tribe’s request.

At the end of the story, however, when all of the drama seems to have passed, a careful reading of the text yields a significant surprise. When Moshe allows them to settle on the east bank of the Jordan, he addresses his comments to, “the tribe of Reuven, to the tribe of Gad, and to half of the tribe of Menashe the son of Yosef” (32:33). All of the commentators struggle to understand the surprising addition of Menashe who has not been mentioned at any previous stage of the discussion. Why does Moshe include the tribe of Menashe and how do two tribes become two and a half?

Various suggestions have been offered (see, for example, the comments of Ibn Ezra and Ramban) but perhaps the most intriguing is the theory proposed by the Midrash, which draws an association between this division of Menashe – half remaining on the east bank and half entering the Land of Israel – and the painful family history of this tribe. The Midrash suggests that because Yosef caused his brothers to rend their garments when he had his royal goblet placed in Binyamin’s bag (Bereishis 44:13), his descendants – the tribe of Menashe – were torn into two, inhabiting different sides of the Jordan. The apparent message of the Midrash is that splitting the tribe of Menashe into two parts is a kind of kapparah, atonement, for the pain caused by Yosef’s mistreatment of his brothers.

Taken at face value, however, the causal connection suggested by the Midrash is difficult to understand. In what meaningful way does splitting the tribe of Menashe atone for the actions of Yosef?

Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Tuv Ta’am Ve’Da’as) suggests, beautifully, that the Midrash actually has a deeper meaning in mind. He explains that the true intent is to provide an insight into how the children of Yosef might mend the tear of sinas chinam, baseless hatred that had plagued the family of Yaakov for generations; not an atonement but, more importantly, an antidote.

By dividing the tribe of Menashe a situation was created whereby family members would be forced to exert extra effort to maintain their relationship with each other. Unable to rely on geographic proximity to naturally sustain the connection – they wouldn’t just “run into each other” at shul or at the supermarket – special commitment and dedication was required to keep up the connection with brothers and sisters and cousins. While the separation of members of the tribe from each other might, on the one hand, strain their relationship, on the other hand it guaranteed that they could not be complacent or take things for granted.

This mentality and these extra efforts, R. Sternbuch suggests, are the remedy that the Midrash is prescribing for healing – and better yet, preventing – the painful wounds of sinas chinam. Moshe understood that splitting up the tribe of Menashe this would necessitate extra communication between family members and additional visits back and forth, and in this way hopefully prevent the two sides of the Jordan from becoming two separate peoples.


Unfortunately we are confronted with the same problems that faced the Jewish people in the desert. And while there is no easy – or one – solution, there is something important that we can learn from Moshe: As the saying goes, “the best defense is a good offense.” Similarly, the best defense against divisiveness and machlokes is to make a proactive and concentrated effort to maintain peaceful and loving relationships with our fellow Jews. The time and energy spent reaching out to others who live figuratively “far away” from us will have the dual benefit of preventing many problems from coming about in the first place and can also be of enormous help in effectively dealing with issues should and when they arise.

With just over two weeks until Tisha B’Av, this timeless message is certainly timely as well. The Talmud (Yoma 9) famously asserts that the cause of the destruction of the second Beis Ha-Mikdash was none other than sinas chinam. In order to rectify this pernicious problem and to be worthy of the redemption we must do whatever is necessary to cultivate ahavas Yisroel, the love of all of our fellow Jews – whether they live in Israel, to the west, or to the east.


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