Today, we often talk about the gulfs between Jews and the need that Jewish identity has for new sources of bridge building. Whether it’s between tradition and modernity, Israel and the Diaspora, or haredi and hiloni, finding ways to overcome differences by creating new ideas and new structures is the only way to create a thriving Jewish national life. Manashe, one of the 12 tribes that played a pivotal role in Jewish history (despite its sometimes receiving less attention) offers us a model for the way forward.
Long considered by the Sages to be the “sixth book” of the Torah, the Book of Joshua is a compelling political history of the conquest of the Promised Land and its distribution among the Twelve Tribes. In the book, Gad and Reuben request a portion of land on the eastern side of the Jordan. But, importantly, Manashe does not join in this request.
Nevertheless, Moses (in Parshat Matot) presents Manashe with a half portion on the eastern banks of the Jordan River. What’s more, Joshua gives Manashe the largest portion among the tribes in Canaan inside the Promised Land itself–a portion situated at the very heart of the Land.
In this gift, we see that the tribe of Manashe was meant to play a pivotal role in a nascent Hebrew political existence. We learn through Moses’ initial act in choosing a “half portion” for Manashe that he was thinking of the future. Moses wanted Manashe, whose members were famed for their fervent devotion to God, to serve as a bridge, connecting Gad and Reuven and ensuring a united Knesset of Israel. Joshua reinforces this by giving Manashe a central location among the tribes. The sheer size of its portion in relation to the rest of the tribes cemented Manashe’s national stature within the confederation.
Placed to anchor Gad and Reuven and at the same time transmit back to the more insulated tribes the knowledge of the outside world, Manashe was to be the conduit of Jewish faith and worldly renewal within Israel’s national life. Looking at the fragmented and sometimes antagonistic factions of Jewish life today, we see that we too are in need of a Manashe.
Rather than geographic position, we must find the cultural and spiritual tribe that sits at the heart of Jewish existence, and who has both faith and reason–and, crucially, the modesty shown by Manashe’s declining to request a portion for itself–to bridge the rifts within us.