Parashat Bamidbar opens with God’s command to Moshe and Aharon to conduct a census of Benei Yisrael, and His appointment of a leader for each tribe to assist in the process. God told Moshe and Aharon that they would be assisted by “one person for each tribe,” adding that “he is the person who is the head of his father’s household” (1:4). He then proceeded to name the leader chosen for each tribe.
The reference to these leaders as “the person who is the head of his fathers’ household” (“ish rosh le-veit avotav”) seems difficult to explain, though it is commonly understood that this is just another term for tribal leadership. More specifically, Netziv explains this verse to mean that the people who were already accepted by their tribes as leaders were now officially appointed by God to a leadership role. God told Moshe and Aharon those who had already been serving as “rosh le-veit avotav” – de facto leaders – would now be officially named as leaders. This term, according to Netziv, refers to an unofficial leadership role, one that was not formally assigned, and God now told Moshe and Aharon that these leaders would now be assuming formal posts.
A clever reading of this verse is cited in the name of the work of Melekhet Machashevet (in Rav Shmuel Alter’s Likutei Batar Likutei). The term “rosh le-veit avotam” could perhaps refer not to a tribal leadership role, but rather to effective leadership in one’s family. God was informing Moshe and Aharon that the figures he was now assigning to positions of leadership were people who were admired and respected by their family members because of their characters. Only people who act properly at home, who earn the respect and love of their family, are fit for positions of communal leadership.
While it is unlikely that this is the actual intent of the verse, this creative reading reminds us that one’s commitment to family must not be sacrificed for the sake of leadership. To the contrary, proper conduct among one’s family is seen as a prerequisite to leadership. Only if a person satisfies his most basic obligation – to tend to his family – can he then aspire to proceed further and seek to help his community and his nation. If one neglects his familial duties for the sake of pursuing a leadership role, he no longer has the necessary credentials for such a role, as only a person devoted to family can then devote himself to the community or the nation at large.