What was the purpose of this census taking place at this specific time? Note the comments of the following:
a. Rashi - verse 1 - Because they were dear to him, He always counts them: When they went forth from Egypt he counted them, when many of them perished for having worshipped the golden calf, He counted them to ascertain the number of survivors; When He brought his Divine Presence into their midst (through the command to construct the tabernacle) He counted them; for on the first day of Nisan, the tabernacle was erected and shortly afterwards on the first day of Iyar, He counted them.
b. Rashbam - verse 2 - At this specific point in time (during Iyar) they were to begin the journey to the Land of Israel, and those aged twenty were eligible to be soldiers... therefore God issued the command at the beginning of Iyar to undertake a census.
c. Sforno - verse 2 - (the purpose of the census was) to organize them in formation, by tribes to enter the land in an orderly fashion. There was to be no war waged against them by the land’s inhabitants who would flee before them as some already had... i.e. the Girgashi nation. Because of the subsequent sin of the spies, the land’s inhabitants remained and had to be ultimately driven out (by war).
Analyze and harmonize the approaches of the above commentators.
All of the above commentators would agree that the taking of the census on the first day of Iyar served a purpose related to a specific event. If we would compare the counting of people to an individual counting money in order to make a purchase or pay a debt, we could explain Rashi’s comment by saying that the individual also derives joy in taking account of his wealth. He not only counts money, he realizes that his assets count! Thus according to Rashi the census concurrently carried a message of God’s love and caring for his treasured people.
Rashbam and Sforno view the census exclusively as a necessary strategic act in preparation for the journey to and entry into the promised land. To these two commentators, God demonstrates his love by fulfilling his promise first made to Abraham to bequeath the land to his descendants.
According to Rashi the census is a means (preparation for conquest) and an end (demonstration of God’s love). According to Rashbam and Sforno the census was a means alone.
Prepared by: Rabbi Mordechai Spiegelman veteran yeshiva educator (USA) now residing in Jerusalem