Anyone who has spent time on committees in the business world or in communal life can tell you that the person initially designated as the leader of a particular team is not always the one who exercises the most influence on the group. Sometimes, a leader emerges from the group and gains the confidence of its members. He or she may not assume the formal role of leader of the team but that is of secondary importance; the person’s capability to steer the group’s work to a productive end is the best hallmark of true leadership.
The Torah recognizes this phenomenon and brings it to our attention in a subtle fashion in the Book of Bemidbar, through the way it lists the names of the different tribes.
In this week’s parsha, Moshe is instructed to enlist the head of each tribe and then to conduct a census of the men of each tribe who were old enough for military service. The first head of tribe listed is Elitzur ben Shedeiur of the tribe of Reuven and the first tribe counted is Reuven, the first born of the tribes (Bemidbar 1:1). The formally designated tribe is again listed first much later in the census in Parshat Pinchas (Bemidbar 26:5).
Contrast this with the accounting of the placement of the tribes in the camp of Israel, further in Parsha Bemidbar, in which the tribe of Yehudah is listed first. This change is echoed in the last tribal listing in the Book of Bemidbar, of the princes of the different tribes who are designated to take possession of the land of Israel; here too, Yehudah takes precedence with its prince, Calev, listed first (Bemidbar 34:19).
As students of the Torah, we are aware of the broader context of these shifts in prominence of the two tribes – how it was sons of the tribe of Reuven who helped lead Korach’s rebellion against Moshe (Bemidbar 17:1) while it was Calev who, alone with Yehoshua, stood up against the evil report of the ten spies (Bemidbar 13:30, 14:6), and how the tribe of Reuven eventually decided, with the tribe of Gad, to seek to take its portion of land outside the formal boundaries of the land of Israel (Bemidbar 32).
The Torah text reveals to us the shift in spiritual influence of the two tribes, through the different accounts in the Book of Bemidbar. And it uses the ordering the tribes, in different places, to underscore this shift and make a point that first and foremost, it is the actions of the person or persons that make them true leaders and not their titles.Rabbi Francis Nataf