Parashat Bamidbar begins by telling of the census taken of each tribe of Benei Yisrael, which was conducted by Moshe and Aharon with the help of one leader from each tribe. The Torah refers to these representatives of the tribes as “keru’ei ha-eida” (loosely translated, “distinguished members of the nation” – 1:16).
The Pesikta Zutreta notes that a similar phrase appears later in Sefer Bamidbar (16:2), in reference to the 250 men who joined Korach in his uprising against Moshe’s leadership, whom the Torah calls “keri’ei mo’eid.” The word “keru’ei” here in Parashat Bamidbar, as the Pesikta observes, is written unusually, with the letter yod, which has the numerical value of 10. The Pesikta suggests that this alludes to the fact that “they were righteous and they were present when the Ten Commandments were given.” The word “keri’ei” used in reference to Korach’s followers, by contrast, is written without the letter yod, because, the Pesikta writes, they were sinful, in contrast to the righteous leaders who conducted the census.
What might be the significance of the event of Matan Torah – when the Ten Commandments were pronounced – in regard to the contrast between these two groups of men? Why is the piety of the representatives named here in Parashat Bamidbar associated specifically with Matan Torah? And, why does the Pesikta describe them as having been present at Matan Torah, given that the entire nation was present at that time?
The answer, perhaps, can be found in the content of the argument presented by Korach and his followers when they confronted Moshe and Aharon: “The people – they are all sacred, and the Lord is in their midst; so why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of the Lord?!” (16:3). Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, explains that Korach and his followers refer here to the event of Matan Torah, when the entire nation heard God speaking. These leaders pointed to the Revelation at Sinai as proving that the entire nation should be allowed to serve as kohanim and do not require formal leadership.
It is perhaps for this reason that the Pesikta contrasts the leaders who conducted the census with Korach’s cohorts by describing the former as having been present at Matan Torah. Korach’s followers were, of course, also present, but they walked away from the event with a fundamentally wrong conception of what it meant for the nation. They concluded that since God revealed Himself to all Benei Yisrael, they are all essentially the same, and no divisions should be made between different groups. The leaders who conducted the census, by contrast, understood that God revealed Himself to the entire nation to charge each tribe, each group and each individual with a unique mission, to maximize its or his unique potential to its fullest. The fact that the entire nation stood at Sinai and beheld the Revelation did not mean that they are all expected to be exactly the same. Rather, it meant that each individual is expected to fulfill his or her special role. This notion is reflected by the census, whereby each tribe was counted separately – demonstrating that each tribe is assigned its unique role and place within the nation.
When Benei Yisrael stood at Sinai, they all received the same Torah which they must all observe, but within the boundaries of Torah law and teaching, each group and each individual has a unique role to fulfill. Korach and his followers were correct that the entire nation is sacred – but they were incorrect in assuming that because of this sanctity, the entire nation should serve God in the capacity of kohanim. Each “tribe” must fill its role and find its place, as we all work together, each of us in our own individual capacity, to create a society that brings glory to God.