Sefer BeMidbar, which is also called Sefer HaPekudim or Book of Numbers, begins with a census taken by Moshe and Aharon of all of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael. The Torah describes the census in fifty verses, and this statistic, which seems insignificant, actually does show the section's importance. We might expect that a mere counting of a group would get minimal, if any, attention in the Torah. By devoting so much attention to this census it demonstrates that there is great import to this section. Why is it important for future generations to know the details of the census—the date, who was counted, its results, etc.? Rashi (BeMidbar 1:1 s.v. VaYedaber BeMidbar Sinai BeEchad LaChodesh) explains that the reason for the census is because of Hashem’s love for Bnei Yisrael. Since Hashem loves His people, He counts them repeatedly. Hashem counted Bnei Yisrael first when they left Egypt, again when some of them died after the Eigel HaZahav, and a third time before He placed His Shechinah upon them. The Mishkan, where Hashem’s Shechinah rests, was built on the first of Nissan, and the Jews were counted soon after on the first of Iyar. While this does present a number of insights about the rationale and dates of the countings, we still have unresolved questions.
Rashbam (BeMidbar 1:2 s.v. Se’u Et Rosh Kol Adat) offers a more straightforward explanation for the reason to count. The reason for the commandment, “Se’u Et Rosh Kol Adat Bnei Yisrael,” “Take a count of the entire nation”(BeMidbar 1:2) is the eminent entry of the nation into Eretz Yisrael and the twenty-year-old men who would be the ones fighting the battles. He proves this from the fact that on the twentieth of Iyar, following the census, Hashem's cloud appeared upon Bnei Yisrael, which indicated that it was time to travel. Additionally, in Parashat BeHa'alotecha (BeMidbar 10:11) it reads “Nosim Anachnu El HaMakom Asher Amar Hashem Oto Etein Lachem,” “We are traveling to the place of which Hashem has said ‘I will give it to you.’” This is why Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon to count them specifically at the beginning of the month, right before they began to travel. He finds more support from the fact that Sheivet Levi wasn’t counted in the census because the Levi’im worked in the Mishkan and did not go out to war.
Ramban (BeMidbar 1:1-3 s.v. Kol Yotzei Tzavah BeYisrael) takes a similar approach. He says that this practice is consistent with kings who are sent out to war. Moshe and Aharon counted Bnei Yisrael’s soldiers because they didn’t want to rely on a miraculous intervention that would enable one Jew to destroy an entire army.
Seforno (BeMidbar 1:2 s.v. Se’u Et Rosh) agrees that the counting was related to Bnei Yisrael’s entry into the land, but he adds something extra. He explains that if the Jews were eager to enter the land instead of continuing the sin of the spies by despising it, Hashem would have dealt with the enemies himself. However, the longer Bnei Yisrael waited in the desert, the bolder the enemy became and the harder it became to defeat them, to the point that they needed to actually go to war.
In my opinion, the same is true today. It seems to me that the more we show our enemies that we are unwilling to take hold of something that belongs to us, the more they believe it’s theirs and the greater a struggle it becomes to defeat them. We saw a great example of this last week with Yom Yerushalayim. If we had embraced and settled in every inch of our historic homeland, I believe that our enemies would have capitulated because they would have had no other choice. However, since we left portions of our land unoccupied, we now suffer the consequences of a constant struggle for the land.