The Torah in Parashat Bamidbar tells of the census taken of Benei Yisrael after the Mishkan’s construction, and informs us of how the census was conducted: “Va-yityaledu al mishpechotam le-veit avotam” (1:18). We find different interpretations of this phrase among the commentators, but the Ramban explains it to mean that each person who was counted had to identify himself by his name and details about his family (“ani peloni ben peloni mi-mishpachat peloni…”).
The Ramban’s interpretation seems striking in light of the fact that when the Torah records the census’ findings, it makes no mention whatsoever of the numbers of individual families within the tribes. The Torah tells us only the population of each tribe, without giving us the breakdown of the individual families. This is in contrast to the separate census taken of the tribe of Levi, the findings of which are presented later in this parasha and are indeed broken down into the three Levite families (Gershon, Kehat, Merari). In that context, the breakdown by family is necessary because, as the Torah discusses at length, the different families performed different roles in the transportation of the Mishkan, and the Levite census was conducted, at least in part, for the purpose of assigning the various Leviyim to their respective roles. But no such breakdown is made in the presentation of the findings of the nationwide census, presumably because there was no need to determine the numbers of members of individual families. We might therefore wonder why, according to the Ramban, it was necessary for each member of Benei Yisrael to identify himself by his family when he was counted. If individual families were not counted, why did the people need to identify their families?
Rav Michael Rosensweig explains that this was necessary to emphasize the importance of individual contribution, which could easily be overshadowed during the process of a national census:
The prominence of the nuclear and broader family units and of the individual even in this more general tribal project reflects the centrality, even the indispensability, of these themes in halachic life. The Torah's description as well as the actual process that ultimately produced the broader shevatim census figures conveys that absent singular personalities, individualistic contributions, and the cornerstone of the core family unit, there can be no meaningful larger cohesive structure. While numbers are sometimes useful and efficient in national and communal life, any broader count risks dehumanizing and objectifying human beings in a demeaning manner that is halachically objectionable.
Rav Rosensweig adds that this might also explain the Torah’s insistence on counting indirectly, through the donation of half-shekels, rather than simply counting people:
This is one of the reasons that the numbers were gathered by counting contributions rather than people and in the context of a donation that accentuated man's volitional and altruistic role as a subject, rather than as an object. The emphasis of individual names and family identity redeemed the use of numbers, ensuring the enumeration of subjects not objects.
The danger of a census lies in the reduction of individual members to numbers. By each member of the nation coming forward and announcing his name and family background, the message was compellingly conveyed that despite the assigning of numbers, each individual and each individual family assumed paramount importance. Without the efforts and achievements of individuals and family units, the final sum is meaningless. Even as we combine together to form the cohesive, organic entity of Am Yisrael, we must never lose sight of the fact that our collective success is entirely dependent upon our individual efforts, as each and every one of us must do his part, recognizing his indispensable role in the pursuit of our national goals.