Much of what I’m going to talk about is inspired by Rabbi Bonchek’s book, What’s Bothering Rashi?. It takes a sophisticated look at Rashi’s comments, especially the “obvious” ones, and what they imply for our understanding of the text.
We start by looking at the appointment of the leaders of the people, the נשיאים, to help count the nation:
What does it mean, אשר נקבו בשמת? Obviously they were named; we just read their names! נקב means specified:
So why does the Torah need to make the point that they were specified by name? Rashi gives an answer:
To which the obvious response is “Duh!”—they were named here. That doesn’t answer any questions; it just expands the words of the Torah. The Marahal explains Rashi as saying that this is the placed they were specified, not in any other place they are mentioned by name (such as in the next chapter, or in פרשת נשא). But again, that doesn’t address the question of why?
Rabbi Bonchek points out that Rashi’s word כאן doesn’t mean “here”, at this location in the text, but “now”, at this point in time. The נשיאים named here were designated now, to distinguish them from the נשיאים who had led the people until this point. Because there were נשיאים:
Rabbi Bonchek adds that the נשיאים mentioned here cannot be the same group as the ones who were involved in building the משכן, since that group included a נשיא for שבט לוי but our group does not. Now it is entirely possible that the two groups overlapped (some of them may have been “re-elected”) but that is unclear. We don’t have any backstory on almost any of them. We know that אלישמע בן עמיהוד of אפרים was Joshua’s grandfather (from דברי הימים) and that נחשון בן עמינדב of יהודה was אהרון's brother-in-law (and from the Midrash, that he led the Jews into the Red Sea), but that’s it. We don’t know why they were chosen.
But this idea of a transfer of power helps explain an oddity 40 years later on in פרשת מסעי, when the leaders are named for the division of the land:
Some of them are called נשיא, while some are not. My theory (based on comments by the בעל הטורים) is that most of those named to lead the entry into Israel were already נשיאים. The previous generation had died out and the people needed some kind of leadership, so there must have been נשיאים. Three of the tribes, however, got new leadership. For two of them, it is easy to understand. כלב בן יפנה was “promoted” for his role in the incident of the spies. The leadership of שמעון died after the sin of זמרי, so they needed an entirely new administration. אלידד בן כסלון is a mystery; the בעל הטורים, based on תרגום יהונתן, identifies him with אלדד:
And the Targum specifically identifies אלדד as the one who prophesied about the entry into the land, so perhaps he made sense as one of the leaders:
So how does one get to be a נשיא? The term does not appear in the halachic literature, but throughout תנ״ך it it used for the king:
And for a מלך we know the process:
So a king has to be selected by both G-d, as represented by the נביא, and by the people, as represented by the בית דין. It’s interesting, since one might think that if ה׳ says that someone is the king, that would be that. There aren’t any other mitzvot that requires popular acceptance to go into effect. And that is how it worked; we see with both שאול and דוד that even after they were annointed by שמואל, they had to be declared as kings by popular acclamation. It’s not quite democracy—not one man, one vote—but it makes the point that leaders have to be answerable to the people.
And that explains a textual point in our parasha:
There’s a קרי/כתיב here: the letters spell קְרִיאֵי, those who call but it is read קְרוּאֵי, those who are called. There’s a famous halachic argument, יש אם מקרא/יש אם למסורת, over which form takes precedence in interpreting the text. Here, there is no halacha to be decided, but it would affect the translation. The Targumim use the active voice:
The תרגום יהונתן often translates נשיא as אמרכל, literally “the one who says everything”. A נשיא is someone who gives orders. And that is how אבן עזרא translates it:
But Rashi translates it with the passive voice:
And Artscroll, which as a matter of policy follows Rashi’s translation, uses the passive:
Notably, the שפתי חכמים, a commentary on Rashi, actually reinterprets his words to reflect the active translation:
And the בעל הטורים claims (though most of the sources that document the מסורה disagree) that there is no קרי/כתיב here, but what looks like a י is actually a “broken” ו:
So what does that mean? A leader has to be both, a קוֹרֵא and a קָרוּאי. He/she has to be able to give orders but still be accountable and listen to those who are being led. And that was the failure of the rebellion of קרח :
They were קְרִאֵי, not in any way קְרוּאֵי. They sought the power of telling others what to do without the responsibility of listening to them. And that balance is what a מלך בישראל and any leader needs.