Conducting the census by naming each Israelite teaches us the importance of recognizing the uniqueness of every individual.
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)