Excerpted from Chumash Mesoras HaRav – Sefer Bamidbar, The Neuwirth Edition, featuring the commentary of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, compiled by Dr. Arnold Lustiger
שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – Take a census of the entire assembly of Israel. What was the purpose of this census? Nachmanides (verse 45) offers two explanations. The first is that the Torah wishes to emphasize God’s kindness in transforming seventy souls into a nation as numerous as the sand of the sea. The second reason for the census was so that each Jew would pass before Moses and Aaron and be known to them by name.
Nachmanides’ two explanations reflect two types of counting. The purpose of the first type is simply to gain knowledge of the total number of an item. For example, one counts his money because he wishes to know how much he has. It is the total that interests him; the individual coins or bills have no intrinsic significance.
The second type of counting has a different objective. The ultimate goal is to recognize and appreciate each individual and is not necessarily concerned with the total number. Nachmanides indicates that each person would pass before Moses and Aaron. They counted the people by going from house to house, in the process learning about each family and how they lived.
The transmission of the second Tablets initiated a new phase in the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu. With the giving of the second Tablets, the covenant of Torah Sheb’al Peh began. Moses thus became the rebbe of the entire Jewish people, and a rebbe must know all his students.
Therefore, God commanded Moses: Take a census of the entire assembly of Israel…by number of the names; every male according to their head count. It was not enough for Moses to know the total number of the Jewish people. Moses now had an added obligation, as the rebbe of the entire Jewish nation, to know every Jew by name. The words בְּמִסְפַּר שֵׁמוֹת suggest an intimate relationship with every individual. God commanded Moses to call each man by name, because each individual possesses something unique. To be an effective rebbe, Moses had to know each person as an individual with his own background and life experience.