"A ccording to their families according to their fathers’ houses by the number of names…” (Bamidbar 1:26).

How is a newly freed slave oppressed by many years of servitude taught to stand tall? How is a sense of self-worth and independence instilled into him?

How does a faceless mass of slaves with all sense of national and individual identity crushed out of them by cruel taskmasters learn to function as a nation?

The first step is to remove them from the nation that enslaved them and bring them to… the wilderness. A barren desert wilderness — in order to isolate them from the influences of other societies that have been living in relative freedom. Let them spend some time alone with themselves and enjoy the healing effects of this “spiritual retreat.”

And after that… count them as a character-building exercise. Count them with precision so that they will begin to feel their importance both individually and as a collective.

This is what parshas Bamidbar is about.

“And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the desert of Sinai… in the second year of their exodus from the land of Egypt… take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel according to their families according to their fathers’ house by the number of names” (Bamidbar 1:1-2).

What is the idea behind this counting?

“Because they were beloved before Him He counted them at every turn. When they left Egypt He counted them. And when they fell into sin with the Calf He counted them to know how many were left. And when he came to rest his Shechinah upon them He counted them” (Rashi quoting the Midrash).

Counting them gave form and shape to a camp of slaves lacking self-esteem and self-worth. The census included organization into tribes paternal lines and families. And it was precise down to the last person in each tribe. The tribe of Reuven numbered 46 500; the tribe of Shimon 59 300; the tribe of Yehudah 74 600; and similarly a whole pasuk is devoted to a detailed account of the number of souls in each tribe.

These numbers provide us with valuable information but why did HaKadosh Baruch Hu the Omniscient have to count them in order to record the numbers? He knew perfectly well how many people there were in each family and tribe and He knew the total without needing to add it up. Why then was there a need to count them?

HaKadosh Baruch Hu in fact didn’t need the census at all. It was entirely for their benefit to imbue them with a sense of worth both as individuals and as a group.

“Because they were beloved before Him He counted them. By analogy ” says the Midrash “to what can this be compared? To a king who had many granaries and they were all dirty and full of wild grain and he didn’t bother with tallying up that produce. But he had one granary that pleased him. He said to his servant ‘Those granaries that are dirty and full of chaff I didn’t want to bother making a precise account of them. But this granary is full of fine wheat so I want a proper account of it to know how many korin how many sacks how many shovelfuls there are.’ ”

And what did it do for Bnei Yisrael every time they were counted? The effect was cumulative — suddenly each one of them was noticed. Suddenly each one of them had value each one of them had his own individual importance.

Note the precision in the pasuk where the command to count the people is given. It’s not written “Gather the people together and count them.” Instead this is what the pasuk says:

“Se’u es rosh kol adas bnei Yisrael — Take the sum (literally ‘lift the head’) of all the congregation of Israel.”

The word “se’u ” says the Ramban always signifies greatness — because counting the people causes them to lift up their heads to stand up straight and feel their worth. These are the preconditions for their embodiment as a nation capable of taking personal and national responsibility setting clear goals and marching forward into history.

Moreover the counting had another therapeutic element: family.

They weren’t counted like a herd of cattle or like prisoners in a jail. The count was directly linked to “their families … their fathers’ houses.” Slaves all over the world lack family in the accepted sense of the word. They no longer belong to their families but to their masters. As freed slaves our ancestors were reinstated with their personal lineage as they stepped into life as bnei chorin.

A person’s identity is inextricably bound up with his family origins. People’s eyes light up with pride when they have a chance to mention the position or achievements of their forebears and that spark in their eyes shows how much they need to feel they are part of something bigger than themselves. A sense of membership in a nation isn’t sufficient; a person who has lost his family ties suffers pain like a wanderer without roots.

And therefore this wasn’t a mere head count but a count stemming from the head of each family another means of building an identity for every individual.

This was of crucial importance because the people’s very ability to receive the Torah was based on this sense of familial identity. It was this that transformed them from a people driven by prevailing trends to a people whose morality would change history.

The Midrash teaches: “When Israel received the Torah the nations of the world expressed jealousy: Why were the Jews shown such favoritism? HaKadosh Baruch Hu stopped their mouths saying to them ‘Bring me your genealogical records ’ as it says Give to Hashem families of the peoples (Tehillim 96:7) ‘just as My children bring their lineage… for they merited receiving the Torah only because of their ancestry. Hear nations.’ But the nations began to jeer.”

The foundation of a people then is in family. A people cannot be stronger than this basic link. If the link becomes weak the whole nation falters. Only by means of the family can the values and goals of the people be unconditionally passed on from generation to generation. There is no force stronger than a father for passing the torch of morality Torah and Jewish identity to a son so that those sons too may pass it on in turn from father to son.

There was yet another aspect to this census in the wilderness indicating Hashem’s love for His nation and strengthening the self-image of each and every Jew. In addition to counting by family and father’s house the pasuk specifies counting “by the number of names.”

What does this mean?

“That each one said his name and it was written on a scroll and afterwards they counted up the names and thus determined how many men there were” (Malbim).

Why was such a cumbersome multistep method chosen?

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 661)

“Because then” explains Seforno on the pasuk “each person in the generation was considered significant by virtue of his name which was a reflection of his individual personality and qualities.”

This strengthens what each of us instinctively knows: Each person loves his own name most of all. He can hear it pronounced again and again and it is music to his ears. This is not a negative thing but a clear expression of our healthy sense of ego of self emanating from our core. Not for nothing do public relations pundits advise that the surest way to “win friends and influence people” is by repeated and strategic use of their names. Nothing strokes our egos like the sound of our own names.

Every one of Bnei Yisrael gained a name an everlasting badge of confidence that “yes I am a beloved individual before Hashem.”  ( Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 661)