Drowning us in the detailed figures of a census, the beginning of Sefer BeMidbar seems to be returning us to a basic math class. Instead of simply describing God’s command to Moshe to count the nation and the subsequent total number counted, the Torah goes through the specific number of people in each tribe. For each one, we need to be reminded how the count should proceed, “LeMishpichotam LeVeit Avotam BeMidpar Sheimot Kol Zachar LeGulgelotam MiBen Esrim Shanah VaMa’alah” “According to their families, according to their father’s household, by number of their names, every male according to their head count from twenty years of age and up” (BeMidbar 1:2). And then, after finishing the separate count for each tribe, the Torah decides to do the math for us and give the total number counted. Why is there so much emphasis on the numbers?
The significance of this questions extends beyond understanding the first perek of the sefer. Chazal titled our sefer “Chomesh HaPekudim”- turning the count from a technical census into something that highlights the themes of the book as a whole. How can the meaning of the count give us insight into the issues that will fill the rest of the sefer?
Classical Meforshim give three explanations why God asks Moshe to count the people.
Rashi explains that the count is meant to demonstrate God’s love for the Jewish people. Even though He may already know the bottom line, we are counted numerous times because God, KeVeYachol (as it were), expresses his obsession with us.
Rashbam focuses on the next set of events scheduled for Bnei Yisrael, namely the conquest of Israel, and explains that the count is necessary to properly prepare an army for battle upon entering the land of Israel. We must remember that at this point in the Sefer, the expectation was that Bnei Yisrael would be entering the land immediately. The sefer begins on the 1st of Iyar, only 20 days before the Jews leave Har Sinai to travel to the land.
Ramban focuses the events of the beginning of BeMidbar around the recent dedication of the Mishkan. Now than the Mishkan has been erected and God’s presence rests amongst the nation, an orderly camp must be established to properly maintain boundaries. The people are counted in Perek Aleph to allow for a proper division of the camp in Perek Bet.
Combining all three approaches can help us appreciate the unique role of the count in highlighting the challenges that will face the Jews in Sefer BeMidbar. Taking a nation of people that live with God’s presence and traveling to their promised land encourages a keen sense of national pride that could easily lead to arrogance. Will the nation become too accustomed to living with God that they will take his presence for granted? Or will they, on the other side, be overly dependent on God and unwilling to take personal initiative and act on their own? Will they be able to balance the sense of equality engendered by each tribe camping equidistant from the Mishkan with the distance and boundaries established by the Kohanim and Levi’im? These are only some of the specters that will haunt the nation throughout the Sefer.
While the events transpiring on a national level are monumental, individual members of Klal Yisrael may feel like his contribution is meaningless. The nation as whole merits God’s presence and conquering Israel, he might say, what can I add? Does God really care about me? In this context, a count must not only focus on the bottom line but on every individual being counted - his name, his family, his identity. By repeating the numbers of each tribe and the nation as whole, the Torah emphasizes God’s love for his people at every level. Every individual and every tribe must contribute in his own way if the national mission is destined to be fulfilled.