“Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel (1:2).”
The process of counting Bnei Yisrael described in this parashah differs drastically from the election tallies or censuses that take place in our time. In the electoral process it makes no difference whether a professor or an illiterate placed the ballot, because the purpose of the voting is not to place a spotlight on the individual; the aim is simply to identify which party has accumulated the greatest sum total of votes. Similarly, the purpose of a census is to determine the total count of people in any specific area. The counting of Bnei Yisrael, on the other hand, was carried out as a manifestation of Hashem’s Hashgachah Pratis and love for each Jew. Rashi tells us, “Because of His affection for them, He counts them at all times” (1:1).
The Torah instructed Moshe, Aharon, and all the leaders of the tribes to be present during the process of the counting. Since this census was performed by counting each individual’s half-shekel donation, would it not have sufficed for a collector to go around and collect the money? Why did the leaders of the nation have to give of their precious time to be involved in this process?
This census was meant to be an uplifting experience: “Se’u es rosh Bnei Yisrael” — lift up the heads of Bnei Yisrael (1:2). The only way the counting could be performed was if the greatest men of the generation would take interest in the individual.
Ramban explains that there was even a more compelling reason that necessitated the presence of Moshe and Aharon. “Additionally, he who comes and introduces himself before the foremost prophet and his brother, the holy one of Hashem, has gained merit and life … It is a merit to be counted by Moshe and Aharon because they will look at them favorably and pray that Hashem have compassion on them …” When each person came to give his half-shekel, Moshe would ask him his name and then bless him that he succeed in his endeavors.
The Gra said that during the era of prophecy there was no need for anyone to try to determine his own unique purpose in life. He would simply ask the prophet, and the prophet would tell him what he was supposed to do and how to go about doing it. A person who came before Moshe, the greatest of all prophets, would merit an even more inspiring encounter. Moshe would penetrate into the deepest recesses of each person’s soul in order to give him an appropriate blessing for success. Afterward, Aharon and the leader of his shevet would also bless him individually. Such a process uplifts a person significantly.
It is crucial that every person know that he is important: “Each and every person must say, The world was created for me” (Sanhedrin 37a). Every person has a unique combination of strengths and circumstances that distinguish him from anyone else who has lived or will ever live. He was born to specific parents, lives in a particular era and place, and was given certain talents because he has an avodah that he, and only he, can accomplish. The entire creation is waiting for him to achieve what is incumbent upon him.
If a person is not conscious of his own importance, he cannot begin his avodah in Torah. As an introduction to Kabbalas HaTorah, Hashem told Bnei Yisrael, “And you will be for Me a kingdom of priests (i.e., dignitaries)” (Shemos 19:6; see Rashi). Every Jew is a dignitary with responsibilities and an elevated status, no different from a dignitary in a government. It was with these feelings that Bnei Yisrael prepared themselves to receive the Torah, and it would be beneficial for us to try to emulate these feelings as well.
(Shiurei Chumash, Parashas Bamidbar 1:1; Alei Shur, Vol. I, p. 168)
From Rav Wolbe on Chumash (page 255).