By HaRav Shaul Yisraeli zt"l
Introducing the counting of the tribes, the Torah writes: "And with you will be a person each for each tribe, a man who is the head of the households of his fathers he is" (Bamidbar 1:4).The Torah goes on to list the leader of each tribe, who was involved in the counting of that tribe. The simple reading of the p’sukim indicates that the identity of these leaders was spelled out by Hashem at this time and for this purpose. On the other hand, we find these same men serving as the nesi’im (princes/leaders) of their respective tribes at the inauguration of the Mishkan, which was done a month earlier.
The Netziv explains that the people had chosen the leaders previously, and at this point, Hashem’s appointment provided divine confirmation of their choice. This is the meaning of the words, "a man who is the head of the households of his fathers he is." In other words, he already was a leader.
It turns out, then, that the people’s choice had been exactly according to Hashem’s desire. The people were not motivated by narrow personal calculations, but rather those who were fit for the job received it. This was important because there were long and difficult journeys ahead of them in the desert, as the navi expressed Hashem’s appreciation that the people were willing to "go after Me in the desert, in an uncultivated land" (Yirmiya 2:2). There was a lot of uncertainty. Would they be the next day where they had been the previous one? They needed leaders who could be examples of an elevated spirit, of integrity, and of fine personal attributes, from whom the people could learn.
The Torah writes later on: "These are the ones who were called to the assembly, the princes of the tribes of their fathers; the heads of the thousands of Israel were they" (ibid. 16). Beforehand they were heads of their households; now they were princes. Additionally, they are described by the task of the "heads of the thousands of Israel." In other words, they were not motivated by the interest of small groups but by those of the masses. They saw as their job to unify the individual groups into a more cohesive collective of Klal Yisrael.
This is an approach that must be adopted by all who are "called to the assembly." They must fulfill their charges efficiently and trustworthily. Only in that way can there be harmony between the situation of "each man in his encampment and each man by his flag" (Bamidbar 1:52) and that of "the heads of the thousands of Israel."