Parshas Bamidbar commences with the tziva from Hashem to once again take a census of Bnei Yisroel. (Bamidbar 1:2) Hashem is very explicit that the census is to be taken “according to their families and according to their father’s household”. (1:2) The Torah then recites the tally for each family (except Shevet Levi, who was excluded from the count) (1:48) reaching a total of 603,550 (1:46). This stands in stark contrast to the census taken in Parshas P’kudei where the tally was taken of the entire B’nei Yisroel, without any regard to the amount in each particular Shevet. (Pikudei, 38:26)
This raises two significant questions. First, why are we doing another census so close to when the last one was done? Second, why in the 2nd census are we commanded to break out the amount of people in each Shevet, where this was not commanded the first time? The major significant event, which took place between the two counts, was the building, completion and dedication of the Mishkan. It was this transforming event which was the reason for the recount and why it was done by family the second time.
Prior to the completion of the Mishkan, there existed among the Shevatim a certain competitiveness and even jealousy exhibited under certain circumstances. Consider the selling of Yoseph, the need to separate Shimon and Levi, the marginalizing of the Bnei Bilha and Zilpa, the loss of the Bechora from Reuven and the assumption of leadership by Yehuda. Many of these issues were the result of good intentions but nevertheless resulted in divisiveness. It was no wonder – each Shevet was endowed with unique strengths and weaknesses. Human nature dictated that each attempted to use their talents to the utmost and bask in their prominence. This was precisely the reason why the census in P’kudei did not go by family, to emphasize the need for unity – that Klal Yisroel is best served by each Shevet bringing their individual Kochos to the collective. Only by Shevet Levi leading, B’tzalel from Shevet Yehuda designated as the lead builder with Ahaliyav from Shevet Dan assisting, and everyone contributing gold and silver could the Mishkan come to fruition.
Once this grand accomplishment was in place, every Shevet was able to appreciate the special role and contribution they made to the greater whole. At this point there was no longer a need to emphasize unity, they had already come to appreciate it on their own, through their own efforts. On the contrary, now that the Mishkan was present, everyone realized their unique place. No conceit was caused by enumerating the count of the individual Shevatim.
Klal Yisroel learned in the Midbar that every Shevet and every individual was valuable and contributed to the greatness of the Am. Simply put, we are not and were never intended to all be the same. Rather, we all have what to contribute in filling the various roles necessary for a functioning society unified in their Avodas Hashem. That’s a message quite worthy of reviewing.