Last Shabbat I was reading a shiur written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe ZT”L. The shiur pertained to a comment that Rashi makes regarding the encampment of Am Yisrael in the desert, as discussed in Parashat Bemidbar. Rashi notes that the camp of the Tribe of Reuven was located next to the camp of the Family of Kehat, one of the three sons of Levi. Noting that the villains in the insurrection of Korach came from the families of Kehat (Korach) and from the Tribe of Reuven (Datan, Aviram, along with two hundred and fifty other supporters), Rashi comments “Woe to the evil person and woe to his neighbour”. The Rebbe offers two different ways of understanding the relationship between an evil person and his neighbour:

  1. The neighbour of the evil person starts out innocent, but through close contact with the evil person he absorbs evil traits through a kind of psychological osmosis. The individual is influenced by the group.
  2. The neighbour of the evil person chooses a priori to live next to the evil person because of their shared values. The individual joins the group out of his own free will.

The Rebbe suggests that in the case of Korach and Reuven it was a little bit of both[1]. While Korach was the instigator, the Tribe of Reuven definitely had an affinity for quarrelling[2]. Their close proximity only amplified this trait, dooming them.

A similar ambiguity pertains to a group of twelve men who play a major part in both Parashat Bemidbar and Parashat Naso. These are the twelve “Princes” (Nesi’im), introduced in the beginning of Parashat Bemidbar, where they are chosen by Hashem to assist Moshe in the census he is about to oversee. The Torah tells us [Bemidbar 1:4] “With you there shall be a man from each tribe, one who is head of his father’s house”. After the Torah reveals the names of the Princes it tells us [Bemidbar 1:16] “These were the ones summoned by the congregation, the Princes of the tribes of their fathers; they are the heads of the thousands of Israel.” Why did Hashem choose specifically these men? Were they already “heads of the thousands of Israel” when they were chosen, or did they become “heads of the thousands of Israel” because they had been chosen?

This question is reminiscent of an argument between Thomas Carlyle and Herbert Spencer, two British philosophers that lived two centuries ago. Carlyle was a proponent of the “Great Man Theory”, which stated that history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men: highly influential individuals who, due to their personal charisma, intelligence, or wisdom, utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact”. According to Carlyle “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. Herbert Spencer formulated a decisive counter-argument, asserting that while “great men” exist they are only the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes[3]. According to Carlyle the man made the moment. According to Spencer the moment made the man.

While most of the classic Medieval commentators do not address this question, Rashi and the Ibn Ezra seem to hold like Spencer, suggesting that the Princes became important only after the Torah appointed them to assist Moshe in the census. Neither of them brings any reason for choosing these specific people.

The Princes make another appearance in Parashat Naso. After the Mishkan has been completed and consecrated, the Princes together bring a gift of wagons to be used to carry the heavy components that made up the Mishkan. Afterwards each Prince brings a donation for the consecration of the altar. The Torah reminds us who these people are [Bemidbar 7:2]: “The Princes of Israel, the heads of their fathers’ houses, presented [their offerings]. They were the leaders of the tribes. They were the ones who were present during the counting”. Why is this wordy description necessary? Why doesn’t the Torah call them “The Princes of Israel”? We already know who they are.

Or maybe we don’t. Rashi, in his commentary on the verse in Parashat Naso, uses the dual-meaning of the word “matot” (tribe / stick) to teach that these people were slave-officers in Egypt who were beaten by the Egyptians because they were unwilling to beat their Jewish brothers. Why laud these people now? The same word “matot” is used in the verse above in Parashat Bemidbar. Why not laud the Princes there? Also, Rashi explains the words “They were the ones who were present during the counting” as “They stood with Moshe and Aharon when they counted the people [in Parashat Bemidbar]” What is his innovation?

While the job-description of the Princes in Parashat Naso mimics nearly verbatim the description in Parashat Bemidbar, a closer look shows that the verses are not identical. The words are the same but the order in which they are used in is not: The order of the titles in Parashat Bemidbar is Counters, Summoned Ones, Princes, and Heads, while the order of the titles in Parashat Naso is Princes, Heads, and Counters. In Parshat Bemidbar they became Princes only after they became counters. In Parashat Naso they became Counters because they were Princes. I suggest that Parashat Naso champions Carlyle’s Hypothesis – that the Princes had always been Great Men – while Parashat Bemidbar champions Spencer’s Hypothesis – that the Princes were arbitrarily chosen and that they achieved greatness as a result of the mission that was thrust upon them. This explanation neatly solves all of our problems. Not only does it explain the order of the terms used to describe the Princes in Parashat Bemidbar and Parashat Naso, it also explains why the Princes are lauded for their past deeds only in Parashat Naso, because only in Parashat Naso are the Princes portrayed as “Great Men”. Finally, it explains Rashi’s words in Parashat Naso “They stood with Moshe and Aharon when they counted the people [in Parashat Bemidbar]”. Rashi is telling us that as “Great Men” they stood together with Moshe and Aharon as equals. This observation is not evident in Parashat Bemidbar, where they are portrayed as ordinary men thrown into a difficult situation.

A comment by Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch sweetens this explanation. When the Princes are “summoned by the congregation” in Parashat Bemidbar, the words are written “K’ri’ei ha’eda”, but pronounced “K’ru’ei ha’eda”. According to Rav Hirsch, the word K’ri’ei comes from the word “Kari”, literally “summonable”. It is a description of the person[4]. They were the “go-to guys”. The word K’ru’ei comes from the word “Karu”, literally “summoned”. It does not come to describe who these men were, but, rather, what these men did. They were, in the words of Rav Hirsch, an ad hoc committee chosen for one particular mission.  But that was in Parashat Bemidbar. What is it in Parashat Naso that makes the Torah accentuate the inherent greatness of the Princes, calling them “summonable”? I suggest that it is their gift of wagons. These men understood that the Mishkan was not meant to be static. While the rest of nation was perfectly willing to stay at the foot of Mount Sinai forever, these men realized that their national destiny could be met only in the Land of Israel. Their gift of wagons is their way of telling Moshe “Let’s get moving!” This insight identifies them as Great Men, worthy to serve as Princes of Am Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] This answer is somewhat problematic, because the proximity of Reuven to Kehat was determined by the Torah. Reuven had no part in the decision. We’ll leave this problem for another time as it is not relevant to this week’s shiur.

[2] The querulous nature of Datan and Aviram predates the exodus from Egypt.

[3] Thanks to my wife, Tova, for bringing this philosophical imbroglio to my attention.

[4] Similar to the way “nadiv” means “generous” and “achil” means “edible”.