The following article is reprinted with permission from the Union of Reform Judaism.
God commands Moses to take a census of all the Israelite males over the age of 20. (Numbers 1:1-46)
The duties of the Levites, who are not included in the census, are detailed. (Numbers 1:47-51)
Each tribe is assigned specific places in the camp around the Tabernacle. (Numbers 1:52-2:34)
The sons of Levi are counted and their responsibilities are set forth. (Numbers 3:1-3:39)
A census of the firstborn males is taken and a special redemption tax is levied on them. (Numbers 3:40-51)
Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. Associated with you shall be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house. (Numbers 1:2-4)
So Moses and Aaron took those men, who were designated by name, and on the first day of the second month they convoked the whole community, who were registered by the clans of their ancestral houses–the names of those aged twenty years and over being listed head by head. As Adonai had commanded Moses, so he recorded them in the wilderness of Sinai. (Numbers 1:17-19)
The Children of Israel had recently escaped from slavery. How might a census have been a way of rehabilitating slaves and restoring to them a sense of their self-worth and pride?
This is perhaps the first census in human history. There is little to suggest that this was a common practice at the time. What was the purpose of the census?
If the purpose of the census had been purely administrative, wouldn’t estimates have been enough? Does the text suggest that these numbers were merely estimates?
Who ordered the census?
Why did God need a census? Did the God of the Burning Bush, the God who sent the plagues to Egypt, the God who parted the Sea of Reeds need someone to count the Israelites? Could not this God have produced an exact number?
For whose sake was the census conducted?
Why was it necessary for the census to have been organized according to families or clans rather than individual by individual?
By the Way…
Because of [Israel’s] love for God, God numbered them. (Rashi on Numbers 1:1)
Israel has been compared to a heap of wheat. As the measures of wheat are counted when carried into the barn, so, said the Holy One, blessed be He, shall Israel be numbered on all occasions. (Numbers Rabbah I:4)
"Take a census of the whole Israelite community…b’mis’par shemot"–literally, "according to the number of names." What is the meaning of "according to the number of names?" Everyone said his name and wrote it in a book, and afterward they counted the names and knew how many people there were. (Malbim on Numbers 1:2)
"Take a census [S’u et rosh–literally, "Lift up the head"] of the whole Israelite community." The word s’u is only used when the intention is to indicate greatness [that is, holding high one’s head]. (Ramban on Numbers 1:2)
"According to the number of names…" For at that time, every one of that generation was designated by his name, which indicated and reflected stature and character. (Sforno on Numbers 1:2)
As Rashi indicates, the census was clearly done not for God’s sake but for the sake of the Children of Israel. In what way is the carrying out of a census a sign of God’s love for Israel?
The manner of conducting the census as described in the Torah and as further explained by Malbim is enormously cumbersome. Why have everyone write his name in a book rather than simply have all the people line up and do a count?
According to the Rambam, in what way does the census contribute to the "greatness," that is, the self-esteem, of the people of Israel?
The first census in human history was ordered by God as a sign of God’s love and concern for the people of Israel and as an instrument for enhancing their confidence and feelings of self-worth. Not a single person was to be forgotten. A mass of oppressed slaves, who in Egypt had no individual worth whatever, were now to merit an individual count.
And why was the mechanism of counting to record their names in a book used? Because, according to Sforno, everyone from that generation would then be thought of by his name and thus by his own unique, personal qualities. And why was the count organized according to families? Because slaves are denied the security of family life, while for civilized people the family is the instrument for building identity, ethical commitment, and devotion to tradition.
Does this obsession to know the former slaves by their individual names seem excessive? Not at all. What is more important than being known by our right name? Is anything more connected to the depth of our being than our name? If you wish to connect to another person, what is the first important thing you do? You learn his or her name. And what do people expect of their synagogues and their synagogue leaders? That we know their names.
Note: The most trusted servant of God was Moses, and what did God say to Moses? "I have singled you out by name" (Exodus 33:17). What we should aspire to in our synagogues is that our members cease to be an undifferentiated mass and that just as God knew Moses, we know them–each and every one–by name.