Parashat BeMidbar begins with Hashem commanding Moshe and Aharon to take a census of all of Bnei Yisrael. While in the previous census the nation was counted as a whole, without tribal or familial distinctions, this time, Hashem commands that everybody be counted not only as part of their Sheivet, but rather by each individual family within the Sheivet. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky suggests an explanation for this difference between the first and second census. In BeMidbar, the Mishkan is already completed, enabling Bnei Yisrael to realize that their goal as a nation is to serve Hashem. As a result of this realization, each tribe is able to work independently, harnessing their strengths and abilities to achieve this purpose. During the previous census following the Cheit HaEigel, however, the nation was unable to understand their singular purpose of serving Hashem due to the absence of a Mishkan. Therefore, counting them separately as tribes would have led to sectionalism—because Bnei Yisrael did not have one central goal uniting them. Now that Bnei Yisrael have the Mishkan, a way to serve Hashem, they will not lose sight of their greater goal, and their tribal differences will actually help them develop their unique roles in their service of Hashem in the future.
Nevertheless, there is still a looming question of why Bnei Yisrael must be counted to begin with?
Rashi (BeMidbar 1:1 s.v. VeEileh Shemot Bnei Yisrael) comments that Hashem counted Bnei Yisrael a second time to express His deep love for them. Although this explains why Hashem counts Bnei Yisrael in general, it doesn’t explain His decision to count them at this particular time in history.
The Rashbam (1:2 s.v. Se’u Et Rosh Kol Adat) and Ramban (1:3 s.v. Kol Yotzei Tzavah BeYisrael) disagree with Rashi’s approach and specify that Bnei Yisrael were counted now because they were on their way to conquer Eretz Yisrael. This census was needed to count the amount of male adults that were eligible for Bnei Yisrael’s army which would fight its way into the Land. This was a way for the leaders to begin to organize their plan of action for capturing Eretz Yisrael. This approach is supported by Hashem’s directive to not count Sheivet Leivi in the census, presumably because Sheivet Leivi would be preoccupied with work in the Mishkan, rather than the conquest of Eretz Yisrael.
The Seforno (1:2 s.v. Se’u Et Rosh) develops a similar approach to that of Rashbam and Ramban, stating that the census is for the purpose of military preparation. However, he goes one step further and adds that had the sin of the spies not taken place, this census would not have been necessary at all, since Bnei Yisrael would not have conquered Eretz Yisrael themselves. If the sin of the spies never occured, the nations who lived in Eretz Yisrael would have been eliminated before Bnei Yisrael even arrived. As a further consequence, it would be more difficult for Bnei Yisrael to conquer these nations. As the forty years in the Midbar passed, the nations occupying Eretz Yisrael became stronger, making it more difficult for Bnei Yisrael to eradicate them from the land.
The Seforno’s insight is something which can be taken to heart today, especially this upcoming week where we will celebrate the reunification of Yerushalayim and Israeli control over the Old City. Like Bnei Yisrael, we must be committed to fight for the safety of our Land. The longer we wait to take action, the more powerful our enemies will become and the more difficult it will be to maintain peace in Yerushalayim. At every chance we get, we must ensure that our precious Homeland is safe and we must send the message to the world that we are adamant in our intention to retain Eretz Yisrael.