The Role of the Tribal Leaders is to Lead The Children of Israel in Paths of Humility and Introspection
It is written, “And Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Children of Israel, saying: ‘This is the thing that the L-RD has commanded: If a man takes a vow to the L-RD, or swears an oath to establish a prohibition upon himself, he shall not desecrate his word. According to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do’ ” (Numbers 30:2-3).
There are several points that need to be clarified:
1. Why is it written, “the head of the tribes” rather than “the princes,” since they were princes?
2. Why does the verse begin with the word va’yidaber (“and he spoke”), which always denotes a harsh way of speaking, and continues with leimor (“saying”), which denotes a gentle way of expressing oneself (see Shabbat 87a)?
3. Concerning the heads of the tribes, Rashi writes: “He bestowed honor on the leaders by teaching them this law first, and afterwards all the Children of Israel.” Now it is difficult to see what new information this gives us, for it seems obvious that the leaders should be honored first. What is Rashi telling us by this?
Moses our teacher knew that the princes had the ability to influence the behavior of the Children of Israel, for better or for worse. We see this concerning the spies, who were the greatest among the people, but who exerted a bad influence on the Children of Israel, to the point that they refused to enter Eretz Israel and died in the desert after staying there for 40 years. We see the same thing with Korach and his followers, among others being Nachshon and Aminadav, who led a portion of the people to contest the priesthood as well as Moses’ position. All this is due to the fact that they only sought their own interests. The spies wanted to remain in the desert as princes, knowing that they would no longer hold such positions once they entered Eretz Israel, which is why they spoke derisively of the land (see Numbers 14:37). Korach also spoke derisively of Moses and Aaron because he wanted to take over their roles with his 250 followers.
However when princes – leaders of the Children of Israel – behave with humility and self-effacement before G-d, when they study Torah and perform mitzvot selfishly, it is clear that they can have a good influence over the people, who are thus encouraged to serve G-d. Naturally, this is only on condition that they are not preoccupied with their own personal honor, but rather G-d’s alone.
We may now understand this passage concerning the princes. The Torah begins with a harsh way of speaking (va’yidaber) because here the text deals with the good and honor of the princes. Moses wanted to teach them the correct way to serve G-d so that his harsh words would be beneficial to them, which is why he spoke “to the heads of the tribes” to transmit the following information to them: To have a positive influence on the Children of Israel, you must behave with humility by abasing and disregarding yourselves. You play an important role, which is that of a tribal leader and prince, a role that involves many honors, and it is precisely up to you to be careful not to benefit from that and become filled with pride.
This is why he calls them “heads of the tribes,” not princes, for this teaching is alluded to in the word hamatot (“the tribes”), which has the same numerical value as the words haga’avah met (“pride is death”). The word matot also teaches us that princes should conduct themselves with humility – as heads of the tribes (hamatot) by gazing downwards (lematah) and not with upraised eyes through pride – for one must expunge and completely eradicate pride. In fact pride is only fitting for G-d, as it is written: “The L-RD has reigned. He has donned grandeur” (Psalms 93:1). If they behave as such, the Children of Israel would learn this trait from them. He also spoke harshly to them so that they would learn from their predecessors (the spies and Korach & his followers) who died for not having diminished their pride. If they would understand that lesson and behave humbly, good would result for them in this world and in the World to Come. This is what constitutes leimor, a gentle word, gentle and good, like the good to come, since it was from them that the Children of Israel would learn how to get closer to G-d with humility, abasement, and self-effacement.
However to arrive at the virtue of humility, we must study Torah, for without Torah it is impossible to expunge pride. This is why Moses began by honoring the princes and teaching them about vows, for a vow and the Torah are related, as is evident from what the Sages have said: “The one who says, ‘I will get up early to study such and such a passage’ has made a great vow to the G-d of Israel” (Nedarim 8a). This is a great vow because from Torah stems greatness and honor. In fact, through the intermediary of this vow, study no longer becomes an ordinary act, but rather a sacred deed before G-d, and the one makes a vow to study Torah is protected from the evil inclination, for the Torah is an antidote to it (Kiddushin 30b). In fact Torah study enables a person to establish limits for himself and to behave with sanctity, in the spirit of the verse that states: “He shall not desecrate his word. According to whatever comes from his mouth shall he do” (Numbers 30:3). If the princes behave with humility, the Children of Israel would also learn from them to behave with humility. They would also be vigilant with everything that comes from their mouths, and G-d would carry out everything they say.
This was the advice that Moses gave to the princes: If they wanted to be leaders, they would have to behave with humility and erase their pride by using vows and Torah study. The Children of Israel would then learn to conduct themselves in the same way, their words would no longer be mundane, and G-d would perform everything that comes from their mouth, in the spirit of the teaching: “The righteous decrees and the Holy One, blessed be He, executes” (Moed Katan 16a). The Holy One, blessed be He, decrees and the righteous annul the decree, for a righteous person has sanctified his words, and the Holy One, blessed be He, will carry out them out.