Parshat Bamidbar relays five censuses of the Jewish people, including per tribe, per flag, members of Levi that were at least one month old, the firstborn of every family, and the count of the Leviim (Levites) ages 30-50. However, the very first census contains unique instructions, directing a count “according to the numbers of names” (1:3). Why would we be counting names when we’re counting people?
Rabbi Yochanan Zweig explains that counting can be used to combine individuals as a group, and it can be used to give each member of a group their own identity, such that each person counts and matters. One way to acknowledge a person’s uniqueness is to use their individual name, transforming even a mechanical count into recognition of distinct character. This census is intended to capture both the group totals, as well as everyone’s distinct contribution to the whole.
These days our lives are filled with numbers of new cases, deaths, the maximum number of people that can meet as a group, etc. With the Torah as our exemplar, we should focus on the individuality of those around us and celebrate being counted with them.