Parashat Bamidbar begins with God’s command to Moshe to conduct a census of Benei Yisrael before the nation’s journey from Sinai. God told Moshe that he and Aharon were to count the people “le-tziv’otam” (1:3). Onkelos translates this word as “le-cheileihon” – “their armies,” meaning that Benei Yisrael were to be counted in preparation for the arrangement of the army that would wage battle against the Canaanites. Likewise, Netziv writes in Ha’ameik Davar that the word “le-tziv’otam” means that the people should be prepared to fulfill the particular military duties assigned to their tribe.
The Ramban explains this word differently, claiming that it means simply, “in their multitudes.” According to the Ramban, it seems, God here simply emphasized to Moshe that the entire nation, including all its many members, were to be counted in this census.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his comments to this verse, refers us to his commentary to Sefer Shemot (12:51) where he briefly discusses the meaning of the word “tziv’otam” used to describe Benei Yisrael at the time of the Exodus. There he writes that this word denotes family units. The Torah emphasizes that God did not simply bring Benei Yisrael from Egypt as a large assemblage of people, but rather as an assemblage of different “tzeva’ot” – families and households. Rav Hirsch writes: “…all the masses of the Jewish people had crystallized by birth or choice into family groups… Accordingly not only every tribe, but each family, each household could in truth be described as a tzava, as a group forming itself about God…” If so, then God’s command to count Benei Yisrael “le-tziv’otam” parallels the command in the previous verse that the people should be counted “le-mishpechotam le-veit avotam” – “by their families, by their father’s households,” instructing that each family was to be counted separately.
A chassidic reading of the word “le-tziv’otam” is offered by Rav Shlomo of Radomsk, in Tiferet Shlomo. He references the Mishna’s teaching in Pirkei Avot (4:11) that each mitzva a person performs creates an “advocate” – an angel that petitions on his behalf before God. Each individual, the Tiferet Shlomo comments, has with him or her countless “angels” which were produced through that person’s good deeds. And therefore, in order for a census to be accurate, the one conducting the census must count not only each individual – but also that individual’s “army” of angels. The danger of a census is that it reduces each person to just a number, as though there is nothing more to his or her being. God therefore emphasized that Benei Yisrael must be counted “le-tziv’otam,” without overlooking the multitudes of “angels” created by each and every individual through his or her innumerable mitzvot and accomplishments.
The Tiferet Shelomo adds that for this reason, God wanted the census to be overseen specifically by Moshe and Aharon. It takes great, righteous individuals like Moshe and Aharon to be able to recognize how each and every person is actually a “multitude.” Most people tend to magnify the faults and shortcomings of others, and to minimize their accomplishments. People on the level of Moshe and Aharon, however, do just the opposite, appreciating the precious value of each and every mitzva, and thus appreciating the greatness of each and every individual. And so God assigned the census specifically to Moshe and Aharon, to ensure that the people are counted “le-tziv’otam,” together with the “angels” which they have created – teaching us that we must never underestimate the great worth and value of any person, and must instead recognize the “multitudes” of good deeds performed by the people around us, rather than dwell upon their imperfections.