For an explanation of the methodology of this series, see the introduction.

"G‑d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying." (Num. 1:1)

Peshat (basic meaning):

Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often.

Rashi: "The Lord spoke... in the Sinai Desert... on the first of the month"
Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When they left Egypt, He counted them (Exod. 12:37); when [many] fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, He counted them to know the number of the survivors; (Exod. 32:28) when He came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Tabernacle was erected, and on the first of Iyar, He counted them.

Remez (hinted meaning):

Baal HaTurim: "in the wilderness of Sinai"
In the preceding verse of the Torah [the final verse of the Book of Leviticus] it states "These are the commandments." Juxtaposed to this is [this first verse in the Book of Numbers,] "in the wilderness". That indicates that unless a person makes himself like a wilderness, he will not be able to know Torah and mitzvot.

Derash (interpretive meaning):

Maggid Mesharim: Why did G‑d command to count Israel? Doesn't counting bring about death, for there is no blessing after counting or measurement?
The secret is when G‑d wished to cause His Shechinah to rest upon Israel, He counted them to draw to them the upper power and strength to direct and interact with them.
But there is another type of counting. It is the matter of counting and measurement that is from the Other Side, so therefore no blessings rest on it. But there is also the holy counting described above.

Ohr HaChayim: Why didn't G‑d describe what took place in a more uniform manner? At the beginning G‑d first described the general location of when He talked to Moses, namely in the Sinai Wilderness, followed by a specific location in the Tent of Meeting. When describing this conversation, however, the Torah mentioned the specific day and month and only then the more general description of the time frame of the second year of being in the desert.
Any time the Torah mentions G‑d's appearance in a certain place, the place mentioned is of minor significance. When the Torah mentions the desert it is only a detail relative to G‑d communicating with Moses out of the Tent of Meeting, which is the essential message of the verse. The Torah draws our attention to this by first mentioning the day and the month this occurred before telling us which year it took place.

Ramban: G‑d interrupted with the commandments about the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee, which he said were spoken at Mt. Sinai, and stated here again that this communication was given from the Tent of Meeting, as were all communications which He had mentioned since the beginning of the Book of Leviticus. And all of them from now onwards were said to Moses from the Tent of Meeting, starting from the time the Mishkan was set up. G‑d only communicated with him from there. Scripture mentions here in the Sinai Wilderness in order to tell us that they did not travel away from there until they were counted the first time, for the 2nd census taken in the plains of Moab, but the actual communication was in the Tent of Meeting.

Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tissa 9: The Jewish people were counted 10 times:
(1) When they went down to Egypt;
(2) When they left Egypt;
(3) Once in the beginning of Numbers here;
(4) Once in connection with the Spies;
(5) Once in the times of Joshua when the Land was divided;
(6 and 7) twice in the days of Saul;
(8) once in the days of David;
(9) once in the days of Ezra;
(10) and once the time to come .

When a group of people are counted, all are equal. The Lubavitcher Rebbe:
The Book of Numbers gets its name from the census that takes place here at the opening of the book. While at first glance head counting may seem simple, Chassidic thought explains that the census here was a profound event which touched on the very core of the Jewish spirit. When a group of people are counted, all are equal. No one is counted twice, however important he may be, and the most insignificant person is counted too. What then are we actually counting? It is not our personalities, our talents, our wealth, our knowledge or our esteem; rather we are counting our very identities. Thus when the Jewish people were counted, the nucleus of our Jewish identities possessed by all Jews equally is stimulated and brought to the surface.
This nucleus of Jewishness is responsible for the remarkable display of courage among countless Jewish people who were threatened with death unless they renounced Judaism. For a person who had dedicated their life to the practice, one could understand that he might sacrifice his life because Judaism is his raison detre. But logic would indicate that a less devoted person would tolerate a momentary lapse in observance to save his life. Even a pious person could argue he could mend a temporary lapse with teshuva.
In fact, history has shown that countless Jews gave up their lives rather than transgress. Why? Because their Jewish nucleus is always alive, as Rashi writes, "He counts them all the time" and when this G‑dly spark comes to the surface, any Jew will feel that his Jewish identity is so important that he is not willing to compromise it even for a minute. (Likutei Sichot 8:1)

Rabbi David-Wolfe Blank:
The words for "take a census" in Hebrew literally translate to: "lift up the heads of the entire community of Israel." Moses and Aaron are not just counting heads, but they are rather lifting them up, doing both at the same time. How? When one is noticed, counted by someone who is connected to G‑d, who is in touch with the inner Moses, Aharon, or Miriam part of the soul, one is affected. When a Rebbe counts and acknowledges someone, that person responds: he or she feels touched, connected, remembered, in touch with all that is holy. Moses and Aaron are not just counting heads, but they are rather lifting them up...
The Haftarah here speaks of the numbers of Children of Israel being as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore, which cannot be counted. Here in the Book of Numbers, the people seem to have a finite number. What are they: countable or not? One leads to the other. When you become counted by G‑d or a being who is in touch with G‑d, your soul re-adheres to G‑dliness. You become no longer "apart" from everything but "a part" of everything, in PARTnership with every living being.
When counted in this way, you become uncountable as a sePARaTe, isolatable individual. Each and every one of us must again become initiated in this reconnection by becoming counted, and then help others to see themselves in this way, bringing them in, counting them in. In this way, we all become uncountable, unaccountably reunited....this happens through becoming acknowledged as a Divinely connected being, beginning to see ourselves in a newly-connected way. (Based on R. Mordechai Yosef of Izbitz in Mei HaShilo'ach )

Sod (esoteric, mystical meaning):

Zohar Bemidbar 117:
Come and see]: it has been established that the blessing of above does not rest on something that has been counted. You may question: how could they have counted Israel? It is because they took ransom from them and it was settled, and the count did not take place until all the ransom was gathered and counted. At first they would bless Israel and then they would count the ransom, and they would repeat and bless Israel again. So the result is that we find that Israel were blessed in the beginning and at the end, and there was no death amongst them.
Why does death result from counting? It is because the blessing does not dwell when you count, and when the blessing departs, the Other Side rests upon it and one could be damaged. Therefore, they used to substitute a monetary ransom for the count, and thereby remove the threat.
...this counting was purposely meant for a blessing... Come and see: we do not find another counting among Israel by which they received blessings from it as in this count, because this counting was purposely meant for a blessing, and it was meant to perfect the completeness of the worlds. At the place whence blessings emanate, they were counted, as it is written, "on the first day of the second month", (Numbers 1:1) that is Ziv, of the world's blessings, out of which emanates and radiates brightness (‘ziv’) to the world. Hence this month, is called 'Ziv' because the brightness of everything radiates from it. And therefore it is written, "May G‑d...bless you out of Zion.". (Psalms 134:3) And it all pertains to the same thing. It is also written, "for there G‑d has commanded the blessing, even life for evermore." (Psalms 133:3)

BeRahamim LeHayyim:
Here we relearn a matter we have dealt with previously—how the Other Side will rest upon a "counting "of Jews. But there is an exception in this counting in our portion, of which we were told was a counting solely for a blessing. Save for this first counting, why are accountings problematic? Because it's like a kid counting his candy or a squirrel assessing his acorns: this is mine, and not yours. Or look how much I've got?! Or mine's bigger than yours. Or look at me, and look at my stuff! Or look at my big family, I must be really blessed! You get the picture. Once we focus on quantity, we can err with inflated self-worth. So too can others less fortunate or jealous look askance at another and thus give over the dreaded Evil Eye.

In spirituality, perhaps quality is what counts. We hear about prayer that "better is little done with intent than a lot without concentration." So too with mitzvot observance. For each mitzvah done creates an angel, or a supernal spiritual force. If a mitzvah is done half-heartedly, what is created is a lame or weak force. Better to have a small army of strong angels than a myriad of handicapped ones. Quality > Quantity.

The highest of us live in the moment, and every moment is quality time. All of their paths are of pleasantness, and all their ways are blessed.

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