The centrality of the land of Israel is a basic tenet of Jewish thought, so much so that our Sages note that mitzvoth performed outside the land of Israel are little more than practice; similar to an exhibition game, where we prepare for the real thing. Our Sages are not referring to those mitzvoth which are dependent on the Land, those that cannot possibly be practiced outside of Israel, but those mitzvoth that seemingly have little to do with the Land; in fact, the comment of the Sages is actually made regarding the mitzvah of Tefillin (see Rashi on Devarim 11:18, a verse we say twice a day).
Ironically and tragically, classical secular Zionism turned this notion upside down, claiming that the mitzvoth were only relevant in exile; positing that, now that we are home, they can be discarded. Yet all agree that Israel is the ideal place for a Jew. Nonetheless, many find the ideal too difficult to maintain, and for some there are mitigating circumstances that render life outside the Land the preferred course of action.
The question of how to determine where to live one's life is not a new one. The tribes of Reuven and Gad approached Moshe with a request to remain outside the land of Israel . Although greatly disappointed, Moshe Rabbeinu acquiesced-with some conditions-to their request. It is striking, therefore, that Moshe would then instruct an additional tribe, that of Menashe , to join Reuven and Gad on the east bank of the Jordan . "And Moshe gave the Gilead to Machir the son of Menashe , and he lived there" (32:40). Why would Moshe want to encourage more Jews to live in the Diaspora?
Reuven and Gad were focused primarily on their material wellbeing; "they saw that Yaazer and Gilead were good for livestock" (32:1). Moshe was legitimately fearful for the future of these two tribes. Would their children remain Jews? After all, in their request to Moshe to settle in Jordan , they spoke only of their cattle, with no mention of their children. Moshe wanted to ensure that Reuven and Gad would continue to have spiritual role models. By insisting that Menashe dwell with them, he was hoping that Reuven and Gad would be encouraged to remain an integral part of the Jewish people.
It was Joseph who was the first to navigate a successful life in the Diaspora with complete fidelity to his family heritage. And his children, Menashe and Ephraim , were the first to grow up outside the land of Israel . Despite the allure of Egypt , they too remained faithful to their heritage. It is for this reason that we bless our children each week with the blessing, "May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe " ( Breisheet 48:20), a prayer that we live committed Jewish lives even when detached from our Land. Thus, it was the children of Joseph who were most suited to the task of spiritual guidance.
The Netziv ( Bamidbar 2:20) notes that, in the first counting of the Jewish people, Ephraim , the younger son of Joseph, is mentioned first; while at the second census (taken as they were about to enter the Land), the order is reversed. The Netziv explains this anomaly by noting that in the desert, the Jewish people lived a supernatural life, one based on miracles. There were no material concerns in the desert, and thus Ephraim , as the more "spiritual" of the brothers, is mentioned first. However, upon entry into the land of Israel , overt miracles would cease, life would be much more natural, and the Jewish people would need to work for their sustenance. In such an environment, Menashe , as the worldlier of the brothers, would lead.
Menashe, more than the unworldly, studious Ephraim, could relate to the materialism of Reuven and Gad, while simultaneously demonstrating how material goals can be anchored in Torah. In fact, the Netziv notes ( Devarim 3:20) that the tribe of Menashe would go on to produce many great Torah scholars.
But why did Moshe send only half the tribe? Why divide the tribe of Menashe ? The greatest threat to the Jewish people is the drifting away from each other, something that is uppermost in our minds as we enter the three weeks. This drifting apart, this creeping apathy towards our fellow Jew, is the classic meaning of sinnat chinam . By keeping half a tribe in Israel and sending half to live in the Diaspora, a connection can be maintained between the two. Families will travel back and forth, and will discover that they care deeply for their fellow Jews living in other countries.
Furthermore, creativity requires the ability to see beyond one's own four cubits; living only in the narrow confines of one world can stifle growth and breed intolerance. Having a representative tribe based both in Israel and beyond leads to a cross-fertilization of ideas, encouraging the spiritual growth of all involved.
Thankfully, the Jewish population has been steadily increasing in the land of Israel over the last 100 years, so that today, approximately one-half of world Jewry lives in the State of Israel. For the benefit of Jews everywhere, we must see ourselves as one family split into two segments, caring deeply for each other and sharing the best of each of our respective worlds. May we soon see the day when the vast majority of world Jewry dwells in the land of Israel, exporting Torah- ki mitzion teze Torah- yet willing to import the best that the Diaspora has to offer.