Parshat Bemidbar Sinai contains many technical details concerning the census of Bnai Yisrael. This apparently simple act of counting, however, includes many important lessons.
The Ramban notes that the Chumash says תפקדו אתם,“Take note of them,” and notתספרו אתם , “Count them.” What is the reason for this? It implies that Moshe should count Bnai Yisrael indirectly. Thus, when Hashem told Moshe to count Bnai Yisrael (1:2-3), Moshe counted them indirectly by making each person give one half-Shekel to the Mishkan. We learn from this that one should not treat people like objects; one should treat them like people. People should not be counted directly, like cattle; rather, as Moshe demonstrated, people should be counted indirectly, in a manner of respect, to preserve their dignity. The worst example in history of how a human being can be degraded through counting is the Nazis’ numbering of concentration camp inmates, and, among countless other atrocities, counting them repeatedly to further degrade them. They forced freezing and starving inmates to stand for endless hours to be pointlessly counted.
The Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya explain another reason for the indirect counting of Bnai Yisrael. If you count an individual directly instead of through the half-Shekel, you emphasize the individual. This draws attention to the person; it singles him out. This might encourage Hashem to look very closely at each individual’s deeds. If, instead, the counting is indirect, there is less focus on the individual. This is one reason that we Daven with a Minyan; all the prayers are taken in together and we are evaluated as a group, instead of individually. The hope is that as a group we will be judged more favorably.
This concept of a Jew as an individual and also an integral part of Bnai Yisrael is further emphasized in the counting in Bemidbar Sinai. When the Jewish People were counted, their family names were given with the names of their respective tribes. This shows how each individual fit into the Jewish Nation as a whole. Each individual is an integral part of Am Yisrael.
There are two aspects to man: he is an individual, and he is part of a greater whole. Each individual Jew is like a complete world unto himself, which is why the Talmud equates saving the life of one person with saving an entire world. Yet, as the census in Bemidbar Sinai shows, each Jew is part of a family, a tribe, and Am Yisrael. Similarly, every bone in the body has an individual name, yet all of the individual bones form the whole body.
Another question can be asked concerning the counting of Am Yisrael. Hashem counted Bnai Yisrael when they left Egypt, when the Mishkan was built, and again in this week’s Parsha. Why did Hashem want to count Bnai Yisrael so many times? Someone always counts that which is precious to him. When a Jewish mother has a child, she adds another candle to those she lights for Shabbat and Yom Tov for the new child. She does this because a candle is symbolic of the light and joy that every child brings into a home. Thus, on every Erev Shabbat and Yom Tov, a mother indirectly counts her children as she lights candles. Similarly, Hashem counts Bnai Yisrael to demonstrate how He loves and values each person, just like a mother loves her children.
When Hashem told Moshe to count Bnai Yisrael, Moshe did it “on the first of the second month” (1:18), the same day that Hashem commanded Moshe to count (1:1). This teaches us that when we have an opportunity to do a Mitzva, we should do it immediately, without hesitation. Similar to Moshe, we should all try to perform any Mitzva as soon as the opportunity arises, and thus continuously to merit to be counted preciously by Hashem, just as Bnai Yisrael were counted in the desert.