Bamidbar means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert.” This Torah portion is always read before Shavuot, the holiday which commemorates the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
Bamidbar is not only the name of this Torah portion, but also the name of the whole Book of Numbers. This Book is also called by the Hebrew name Chumash HaPekudim (“the Book of Numbers”).
At the beginning of this portion, God commanded Moses and Aaron to take a census of the Twelve Tribes of Israel: “Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their polls;” (JPS 1917, Num. 1:2).
This was the third census taken after the Exodus from Egypt. What is special about this census is that it was not just a general census, but a census of each individual Tribe in which each person was counted by name, emphasizing and recognizing the individuality of every person who made up the entire community. Just as the community was important, so was the individual.
The Hebrew phrase used to describe the counting is s’eu et rosh, which literally translates as “lift the head” (of all of the congregation of Israel)—further highlighting the worth and significance of each individual.
Jewish law states that “something which is counted, sold individually rather than by weight, can never be nullified even if mixed in a thousand or a million others” (Beitzah 3b). “Lifting up the head” of each individual ensures that each keeps his unique identity, and none is lost among the multitude.