Sefer Bamidbar begins with the counting of Bnei Yisrael, with a hint of military purposes ("all those who go out to the army" – Bamidbar 1:3). Rashi (ad loc. 1) mentions the other countings that were carried out, which seem important, considering that Hashem commanded Moshe to involve great people – Aharon and the heads of the tribes. What is the big idea behind this, and why is the exact manner it was done important?
The haftara of Bamidbar contains an apparent internal contradiction: "The number of Bnei Yisrael will be like the sand of the sea" (Hoshea 2:1); "they will be unmeasurable and uncountable." Can they be counted or not? It depends if they do that which Hashem wants or not (Yoma 22b).
It is prohibited to count people unless one does it by counting objects, such as coins or animals, that correspond to them. Why?
There is a dispute between Israel and the nations. Which has precedence: the material or the spiritual? quantity or quality? that which can be counted or that which cannot be counted? "For you are the smallest among all of the nations" (Devarim 7:7). "Whoever saves one life is like he saved an entire world" (mishna, Sanhedrin 4:5). There is even a practical halacha: if bandits threaten a group and there is a choice to save the group by giving up one person, we do not do so (tosefta, Terumot 7:20). There is no way to weigh the individual in contrast to a group; we cannot determine whose blood is redder (see Pesachim 25b). While the nations are interested in numbers, we are not. When the navi says that some 36 people were killed (Yehoshua 7:5), the gemara says it was talking about one tzaddik, who counted like 36.
When one counts with a number, he, by necessity, ignores the people counted. Sometimes an inmate is referred to by number; his name does not appear. The number, which connects between the previous and the next members of the series, is what interests observers. Sometimes you see the picture in an army with the face of the soldier distorted – he is one of a number of people who are to be "fed" to the weapons of destruction.
We remember the days of horror – when we saw the survivors of the atrocities from Europe, who arrived with numbers on their arms. Such horrible numbers, tattooed into their skin! The number killed the person; what happened afterward was just a result.
This is why there must be special care in counting Jews. We count "the number of names" (Bamidbar 1:2) – not just a number, but one that does not blur his name, identity, and uniqueness. It must be made clear that the count is external. It comes to connect the "full worlds" to reach a higher level of community, one that is fit for the dwelling of the Divine Presence. That is why we count with an object – to show that we are not counting the people but the qualitative merging. Perhaps this is why Israelites are called "adam" (Yevamot 61a), as we believe in the individual counting as if he were Adam, who existed on his own. It is different from the approach of others, who ignore the individual.
We are before the giving of the Torah. When we are "His servants," we lose the status of "servants to servants" (Kiddushin 22b). Each one is equivalent to Moshe Rabbeinu. We should not be discouraged when we see how few of us there are. When we accept the yoke of the Divine King, we receive true freedom