Every ten years in the United States, at the turn of the decade, a census is taken of the entire population. A census is important for a number of reasons. It allows a federal budget to be calculated and funds allocated per state and district. It determines the representation of each state in congress. And, perhaps most importantly, it yields much information about the nation’s population and distribution: Is the trend towards urban, suburban or rural living? What is the mean and mode income? What is the racial distribution of the population?
Usually the census is performed by census workers, who canvass a given region of the country collecting data. They distribute questionnaires to each household, then collect and tabulate the results. The legwork of census taking is not considered particularly prestigious or demanding work, and is usually delegated to low-paid, temporary employees.
In the desert, too, G-d commanded Moses to take a census of the Jewish people. “Count the heads of the entire Jewish congregation... you and Aaron and the heads of the tribes.” Unlike a typical census, G-d told Moses himself to take the count! The most esteemed members of the community—Moses, Aaron and the heads of the tribes—were designated to perform the census.
Why did G-d assign this job to Moses himself—the one who received the Torah from Sinai and taught it to the Jewish people? Moses, Aaron and the heads of tribes were asked to go from tent to tent, to perform a count of the Jewish people.
By placing this job on the most esteemed members of the community, G-d wished to demonstrate the preciousness of every Jew. Counting the people is an exalted task, one that can be assigned only to the most distinguished individuals. G-d counts the Jewish people because he loves them so; we count our most cherished possessions repeatedly, so as not to overlook a single one.
The counting of the Jewish people is no mundane task. Every Jew is holy; an actual part of G-d above. Counting the people was a mitzvah. When the counters approached the tents, they were dressed in their most festive clothing, and conducted themselves with respect, dignity and pleasantness.
Performing a census, in and of itself, is an ordinary task, not requiring any special skill or talent. However, when it comes to counting the Jewish people, the ordinary and mundane becomes transformed into something holy. The same is true of every mundane task—the way we eat, sleep, work, run our homes, bring up our children—these are all holy, exalted matters which must be carried out with great care.
Transforming the mundane into the holy is our task during exile; when completed, the world will be prepared for an overwhelming revelation of G-dliness. During the time of Moshiach, the count of the Jewish people will be performed once again, to ensure that not a single one is left behind in exile. G-d will gather up each one, “two from a city and one from a family,” to return home to Jerusalem.
(Based on an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Hisvaaduyos 5745, p. 2092)