“And with you shall be one man from each tribe, a man who is a prince of his fathers’ house” (Numbers 1:4).
Rashi (1040-1105) comments on the words “and with you shall be” and explains that Hashem is saying to Moshe not to count the people alone but rather in the presence of the prince of each respective tribe.
We generally understand that the counting of the people, particularly at this time, was something technical. It was a simple act which could have been carried out by anyone and did not require any special expertise.
This being the case, what was the significance and purpose of it being done not only by Moshe but in the presence of the princes as well?
Even more puzzling is that when the Torah wants to describe the greatness of the heads of the tribes who were bringing the offerings at the dedication of the tabernacle, it picks out the fact that they were the ones who stood beside Moshe during the counting of the people by stating “The princes of Israel, the heads of their fathers’ household, brought offerings: they were the princes of the tribes, they were those who stand look up artscroll translation this doesn’t seem accurate over the counted” (Number 1:7). What greatness was there in this? Why was this particular function chosen as the mark of their greatness?
Dayan Yosef Tzvi Halevi Dunner suggests that the answer to this can be found in the first comment of Rashi to the Book of Numbers in which he explains “Because of Israel’s dearness to Him, He counts them at all times. When they departed from Egypt…when they fell at the calf…when He came to rest His divine presence upon them”. Rashi is telling us that the counting of the people was not simply a technicality to know their number for the purpose of providing services, rather there was a deeper purpose – to acknowledge the value and worth of every individual in the eyes of Hashem.
It was for this reason therefore that the counting needed to be carried out by Moshe, Aharon AND in the presence of the princes. The fact that they were there demonstrated the value of each individual and also gave them a spiritual lift. It said to each individual – you matter. You are not just a number. You are a person. You are unique and have a unique purpose and mission in life.
This is also the reason why when it comes to singling out the greatness of the princes at the dedication of the tabernacle, the Torah chose specifically their function in the counting. Only great people could have been chosen for this important function.
We spend a lot of time encouraging our children and others to realise their uniqueness, but perhaps we too need to listen to this message.