Rashi’s Royal Revelation
ויקח משה ואהרן את האנשים האלה אשר נקבו בשמות
Moshe and Aharon took these men who had been designated by [their] names
|These men: These twelve princes||את האנשים האלה: את שנים עשר נשיאים הללו|
|That were designated: To him [Moshe], here, by their names||אשר נקבו: לו כאן בשמות|
Parshas Bamidbar, the first in the book of Numbers, earns the book its name by beginning with a census of the Jewish people. This is one of many censuses that took place in the wilderness. Hashem commanded Moshe to count all the Jewish men above the age of twenty, those that would be suitable to serve in the army. The leaders of the twelve tribes, described as princes, were appointed to help with the census. After listing the twelve princes, one for each tribe, the Torah states that Moshe and Aharon took them for their appointed task and began the count.
Rashi, the eleventh century biblical commentator, is unquestionably the most important and influential of the early authorities on the Torah. His commentary is found in every edition of the Torah and has spawned dozens of supercommentaries whose task are solely to explain what Rashi meant. At the beginning of the Torah, Rashi describes the intention of his commentary by writing: “I came only for the peshat, the plain simple meaning of the words and verses”. Rashi only comments on the Torah when there is some difficulty in understanding the verse simply, or in order to correct a faulty first impression.
Given this introduction, Rashi’s comments on the above verse are puzzling. The verse is very self-evident; what is the need for clarification? What’s more puzzling is Rashi didn’t seem to add anything. After listing the twelve princes, the verse says that Moshe took “these men”, and Rashi tells us that it’s referring to “these twelve princes”. The verse says the men that were taken were the men that were designated by their names, and Rashi just adds the words “to him, here”. Meaning, the verse is saying that the men that were taken were the men that were designated to Moshe, here, by their names. What is gained by these additions?
The Mizrachi tries to explain Rashi’s motivation. The verse could have simply stated “Moshe and Aharon took them”, why did the Torah add the words “these men”? Since the Torah added these words, Rashi was worried we would misinterpret the verse to be referring to some other men. This is why Rashi comments, to assure us that the verse is still discussing the above-mentioned princes. The problem with this approach is twofold. One, how does Rashi know the Torah is still referring to the princes? Maybe it really is referring to some other men. Even if it is referring to the princes, then why didn’t the verse say, “Moshe and Aharon took them”? What then was added by the words “these men”?
The Gur Aryeh has a different approach to explain Rashi’s intent. When the Torah says that “Moshe and Aharon took these men”, it makes them sound like ordinary people. Rashi wants to stress that these weren’t ordinary people; they were the twelve princes of Israel. Again, if this is the correct approach to Rashi, why did the Torah refer to them as men? Further, the verse uses the words אנשים, which Rashi elsewhere states usually refers to men of importance. So why would I have misunderstood the verse?
A third approach to Rashi avoids all of these issues. This isn’t the first time princes were mentioned in the Torah. Before the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the Torah describes the various contributions the people made. It says the princes brought “shoham stones” for the Kohen Gadol’s breastplate. However, the Torah doesn’t clarify which princes. Elsewhere, the Torah says that the names of the twelve tribes are inscribed on these stones. Rashi names which tribes, and lists Yosef as one tribe and also lists the tribe of Levi. Presumably, the princes who brought the stones were of the same tribes as those inscribed. However, the tribes listed in this week’s parsha are different than the ones listed by Rashi by the Mishkan. In this week’s parsha, Yosef is listed as two tribes: his sons Efraim and Menashe. To keep the number of princes twelve, a prince for the tribe of Levi isn’t mentioned.
This is exactly Rashi’s point. When the Torah says that “Moshe and Aharon took these men”, Rashi is stressing the fact that it’s these princes, not the ones mentioned earlier. When the Torah says that they were the men who “were designated by name”, Rashi stresses that they were designated to Moshe here by name. Meaning, the Torah is referring to the princes designated here in this week’s parsha, not the ones by the Mishkan. The need to make this distinction is because this is the first time that Efraim and Menashe are considered to be their own tribes. This required Levi not to be counted, in order to keep the number of tribes at twelve.
This is just one example of the extreme depth that can be found in Rashi’s commentary. Sometimes a tiny addition to a verse can make a huge difference in understanding. Whenever Rashi doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the verse, in reality he’s helping us tremendously. This case of the princes teaches us the significance of every word in Rashi’s commentary.
 Numbers 1:17
 ibid 1:3
 Known in Hebrew as the Rishonim
 Genesis 3:8
 ad. loc., one of the above mentioned supercommentaries on Rashi
 ad. loc., the Maharal of Prague’s commentary on Rashi
 Rabbi Hartman in his commentary to Gur Aryeh explains that we may have thought that they were not chosen for this task because of their nobility, so Rashi wants to stress that this was exactly why they were chosen
 Numbers 13:3
 Exodus 35:22-29
 ibid verse 27
 ibid 28:9-10
 to verse 10