The Mystery of the Half Tribe of Manasseh | Aleph Beta

Reuven And Gad: Another Family Betrayal?

The Mystery Of The Half Tribe Of Manasseh

Ami Silver


In this week's parsha, we meet the children of Israel standing on the banks of the Jordan River finally ready to put and end to their years of wandering and enter the land of Israel. But then two tribes – Reuven and Gad – threaten to ruin the whole thing. They come to Moshe and ask if they can stay just outside of the borders of Israel so they can graze their sheep there. And Moshe can't believe it! After all these years of wandering, they're asking to not enter the land?!?! But, after some back and forth, the tribes make a compelling offer and Moshe accepts their conditions.

And that's when things get weird... because when it comes time to make the deal, Moshe strays from their agreement. He doesn't only grant these lands to the two tribes of Reuven and Gad. Out of nowhere, he adds half of the tribe of Menashe too! It's just so strange. At first, Moshe was so upset they'd even ask this, and then they make a deal, and all of a sudden he's adding more tribes?! What's going on here? It just doesn't make sense.

In this video, Ami digs into the language and themes in this interaction to reveal a much larger story taking place beneath the surface. This is not just about sheep and land. This is a conversation that is spanning generations, that's reaching back into the recesses of this family's history, and that carries important implications for the future.

Click here to listen to "The Hidden Story Of Brothers, Borders, And Moses’ Burial."


Hi, I’m Ami Silver, you’re watching Aleph Beta. This is Parshat Matot-Masei.

Here we are; the Israelites are camped just to the east of the Jordan river, gearing up to enter the promised land; and the tribes of Reuven and Gad look around and say to Moshe, “You know what? This is great pasturing land, and we have lots of animals. Is there any way we can settle here with our families and our sheep, instead of going into the land of Israel?”

This leads to a long back and forth between Moshe and the tribes, until Moshe eventually agrees to grant their request. But when he does, he does something really weird.

The Settlement of the Tribes of Reuven, Gad... and Half of Menashe?

For some inexplicable reason, Moshe allots these lands to Reuven and Gad – and also to half the tribe of Menashe! But… Menashe never requested to settle here! They weren’t part of the negotiation! Why would Moshe decide to include them? And why half of them? Why split up this tribe onto two different sides of the Jordan River?

It makes it seem like there was something else going on in this conversation. Like there was some unspoken understanding, such that it made sense to include Menashe in the final agreement. But what was it? What was really going on in this conversation between these tribes and Moshe? 

We’re going to go through this story, and as we do, I want you to ask yourself, where have we heard this before? Because I think that there’s another, familiar story lurking in the shadows here that holds the key to understanding what this conversation is really about, and what Menashe’s role is in all of it.

Let’s jump in. When Moshe first hears the tribes’ request, he can’t believe it. He says: האחיכם יבאו למלחמה ואתם תשבו פה – what, are your brothers gonna go to war, while you just sit here grazing your sheep? Are you really going to leave the other 10 tribes to go fight for the land of Israel all by themselves? How could you betray your brothers?

And Moshe goes on to express another fear ולמה תניאון את־לב בני ישראל מעבר אל־הארץ אשר־נתן להם יהוה – why are you going sway the hearts of this nation from entering the land? כה עשו אבתיכם – this is exactly what your parents did, in the sin of the spies.

Forty years ago, your parents were in the same situation as you, about to enter the land. But a small group of people said that they don’t want to go, and everyone else followed their lead. והנה קמתם תחת אבתיכם תרבות אנשים חטאים לספות עוד על חרון אף־יהוה אל־ישראל – and here you are, just like your parents, you’re going to bring God’s wrath upon the nation – ויסף עוד להניחו במדבר – and once again, God will leave the nation to die out in the wilderness.

Then it’s Reuven and Gad’s turn to respond. ויגשו אליו ויאמרו – they approach Moshe and say: don’t worry! We’re not going to abandon our brothers.ואנחנו נחלץ חשים לפני בני ישראל – we’re going to fight on the front lines on their behalf, we’ll be the first ones to go into battle in the land of Israel –עד אשר אם־הביאנם אל־מקומם – and we’ll keep on fighting until all of the tribes are settled in the land. Only then, will we return to this side of the river and settle down.

Now stop here and ask yourself: what other story in the Torah does this remind us of? A story about brothers betraying their brothers… threatening to leave their brother to die in the wilderness. That other story also involves a moment when somebody approached someone else, with the same words we’re seeing here – vayigshu elav – which was also followed by a promise to take responsibility for their brother.

Is it starting to sound familiar? These elements are all there in the story of Joseph and his brothers

Parallels to the Story of Reuven, Gad and Menashe in the Bible

One day, Joseph’s brothers were out taking care of their sheep, and when they saw Joseph approaching, they conspired against him. But instead of murdering him, they decide on a different course of action: השליכו אתו אל־הבור הזה אשר במדבר – let’s throw him into this pit, the one out in the desert. We’ll leave him there to die slowly. As we know, from there, Joseph was sold to be a slave in Egypt.

But 20 years later, the brothers were forced to come down to Egypt because of a famine. And by this time, Joseph was in a position of power, and was threatening to take Benjamin captive. At that point Judah stepped up. ויגש אליו יהודה – Judah came close to Joseph – and said “I’m taking full responsibility for Benjamin! Take me in his place! I will not leave my brother and let him be taken captive!” This was the moment that turned everything around, when the relationship between Joseph and his brothers began to heal

And incredibly, here in Parshat Matot, a similar pattern seems to be playing itself out.

Like Joseph’s brothers, the tribes of Reuven and Gad are also occupied with their sheep. And Moshe tells them that if they stay on the east of the Jordan River, they’ll be betraying – אחיכם – “their brothers.” And just listen to the words he uses to express these fears: ויסף עוד להניחו במדבר – “God will leave this nation to die in the wilderness.” I can’t help but hear Joseph’s own name here. ויסף עוד , as if Moshe is saying, it’s Yosef, all over again. And you know how it’s going to end? להניחו במדבר – “you’ll leave your brothers abandoned in the desert — just like Joseph’s brothers did to him.”

And these Joseph themes continue right into Reuven and Gad’s response: ויגשו אליו – just like Judah did all those years ago in Egypt, these two tribes come close to Moshe and proclaim their loyalty to their brothers. “We will take full responsibility for the rest of the nation, we’re going to put our lives on the line for them.”

It seems like the story of Joseph and his brothers is popping up throughout this whole exchange between Moshe and the tribes of Reuven and Gad. And you know what? I don’t think this is an accident. Because beyond these parallels that we’ve shown, there’s something even more essential that these two stories share with one another. In a certain way, the story of Joseph and his brothers may indeed provide the backdrop for this moment, when the nation is standing on the cusp, preparing to enter the land of Israel.

Because ask yourself, how long has it taken for the nation to arrive here? You might say it’s taken them 40 years. They’ve been wandering through the desert ever since they left Egypt. But that’s a bit shortsighted, because they were homeless long before then. For over 200 years, they were slaves in Egypt, a nation without their own land, without a place to call home. And how did that begin? When did the Israelites start to live as a landless people? It began with the sale of Joseph, the first Israelite slave in Egypt. 

You see, before the brothers conspired against Joseph, there was a brief moment when the children of Jacob were all living together in their ancestral homeland of Canaan. But the sale of Joseph hurled them into an extended period of landless wandering. And now, finally, they’re about to put an end to that ugly chapter.

The entire nation, all 12 tribes, are about to return to their homeland. It’s the moment they’ve been waiting for, for all these years. And Reuven and Gad are threatening to ruin it all. They’re going to set the clock all the way back to the very first time that brothers betrayed their brother. 

The History Behind Reuven and Gad's Request

So of course, it sets off Moshe’s alarms. When Moshe warns these tribes about the devastating consequences of their actions, he’s speaking about the present, but he’s also speaking about the past – he’s thinking hundreds of years back to where this all began. And Reuven and Gad got the point. They responded to Moshe in the best way possible, showing him that they wouldn’t return to that dark moment when the brothers betrayed Joseph. Instead, they took their cue from Judah, from the moment when he stood up for his brother and redeemed the betrayals of the past.

Moshe sees this and agrees to go ahead with the plan. But he adds a new detail to the mix. When he announces that these lands will indeed go to the tribes of Reuven and Gad, he includes half of the tribe of Menashe as well. And, we were wondering, why would he do this? Why this tribe? And why half of them?

I think that now we can finally answer this piece of the puzzle.

The Menashe Family Tree: Sons of Joseph

Because the tribe of Menashe comes from Joseph. The verse even refers to them here as Ben Yosef, the child of Joseph, as if to remind us of who this tribe really is. Who was Menashe, and what did he mean to Joseph?

Go back to the story of his birth. Menashe was Joseph’s firstborn son. He was born in Egypt, after Joseph had risen to a position of prominence. And look at what Joseph says: ויקרא יוסף את־שם הבכור מנשה – Joseph named him Menashe – כי־נשני אלהים את־כל־עמלי ואת כל־בית אבי – for God has allowed me to forget all of my suffering, and my father’s house.

The Biblical Meaning of the Name Menashe: A Clue?

Menashe’s name means, “moving on.” His birth represented a new beginning for Joseph. After being abandoned by his own brothers, and being sold as a slave, Joseph has now climbed the ranks. He has his own child, his own family, and he recognizes that a new beginning really is possible. With the birth of Menashe, Joseph realized that his life need not be defined by his painful past. He could let go of those wounds, and begin to build a new future. 

And maybe this is why Moshe added this tribe to the pact with Reuven and Gad. Because at first, Moshe was worried that Reuven and Gad were going to abandon their brothers, just like Joseph’s brothers once did to him. But when Moshe saw their promise of loyalty, he realized that those patterns of sibling rivalry and betrayal are a thing of the past.

The tribes are entering a new paradigm, that isn’t defined by past hurts but is about looking to the future. So Moshe adds the tribe of Menashe, the tribe who very name means “moving on from the pain of the past.” This is the tribe that will help usher in a new beginning.

Why Did Menashe Become a Half Tribe?

But Menashe isn’t a mere symbol of this new age of cooperation, they’re also there to ensure that this pact of unity will last. Because after Reuven and Gad’s request, the tribes of Israel are going to be spread out across borders, but Moshe makes sure that there will be one tribe that connects both sides of the river.

With half of Menashe inside the land of Israel, and the other half just on the other side of the Jordan River, Menashe will be the glue that keeps the entire nation intact and connected across this geographical divide.

At first glance, this whole exchange between Moshe and the tribes seems to be a conversation about priorities, about balancing different loyalties and reaching an agreement. But when we see the bigger picture, it’s also a story about a family trying to negotiate its own history. A nation of tribes working to free themselves from the mistakes of the past, and to move forward together.

Reuven and Gad made a straightforward request. But for Moshe, it caused generations of traumatic family history to bubble up to the surface. Now, Reuven and Gad could have dismissed him, they could have said, “don’t worry, Moshe, you’re overreacting. That was so long ago.” But they didn’t.

They heard Moshe’s concerns – the spoken ones, and the unspoken ones – they showed him that they understood what was at stake, and they were ready to right the wrongs of the past. This opened up a possibility for a new reality to emerge, that transcended the past hangups and resentments.

What the Story of Reuven, Gad and Menashe Teaches Us Today

I think that Reuven and Gad are modeling a mode of interaction that we can learn from, even today. Because it’s true for us as well, that our conversations often contain multiple layers. This is especially true when we’re speaking with family members, and especially, when the family has a painful past.

Sometimes our interactions trigger responses that seem to come out of nowhere, and if we fail to see the deeper layers at play, we’ll usually end up talking past each other, or even repeating past hurts. But if we can really hear what’s beneath the other person’s words, what’s behind their cares and responses, it may offer us a new possibility. We may be able to find an authentic point of connection and understanding in the moment, that can build towards a new future.

This conversation didn’t only have implications for two and a half tribes, it had deep implications for Moshe himself. Because as it turns out, these lands the tribes settled to the east of the Jordan became the place for Moshe’s own burial plot! To hear more about that part of the story, check out this Parsha Lab podcast episode.

I hope you enjoyed this video. Thanks for watching!

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