"Take a census of the entire congregation of Israel, according to their
families, according to the house of their fathers." [1:2]
Why does G-d command a count at this point in the Torah? From the
commentary of Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, we can derive two
complimentary answers to this question.
First of all, a count done in the wilderness serves no political or
economic purpose. Rather, the count "testifies on itself" that it was done
only for the sake of Torah, as evidenced by the previous verse which
reads, "in the desert of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting" -- the Torah was
given on Sinai, and it's "center" was the Tent of Meeting. The census
served a religious function.
What was this religious purpose of the count? As Rabbi Hirsch points out,
throughout Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, we learned of all the
obligations which the Nation of Israel had to the Mishkan, the Sanctuary.
We also learned, at the end, about the sacrifices which each individual
could offer as a voluntary commitment.
With all of this, a person might think that the nation could fulfill its
obligations without him and his contribution, and as for himself, he could
decide to offer no voluntary sacrifices of his own. We do not see that
every individual is important as an individual.
The census contradicts this mistaken impression. Each person counts. He or
she is unique, different from every other, with a unique function and
unique contribution to make. Although this count included only the
soldiers, males over age twenty, they served as public representatives for
the larger nation. The count itself indicated how each individual was part
of a family unit, part of a larger tribe, and a crucial building block in
the larger whole. This count send a message for all generations: we each
have something to contribute, and the entire Nation needs us!