"Take count of the heads of all the congregation of the Children of Israel, by their families" Numbers 1:2
There are societies in which personal freedom and aspirations are abrogated, human dignity and the value of human life are disregarded. By contrast there are those built upon personal freedom where human life and dignity are cherished as inalienable rights.
Yet individual freedom and choice may sometimes be abused at the expense of others. Where do we strike the balance? The command of Moses to count the heads of the Jewish people and take a census the Torah indicates the proper balance to be struck.
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, also known as the Shelah Hakadosh, explained that every Jew is a rosh, a head. Every Jew is counted individually because everyone is unique and special. However, the Torah also commands that Jews not be counted directly. Such a census brings danger of a plague. Instead every Jew donates a half-shekel, which is later counted.
Rabbeinu Bahya explains that so long as the Jew is part of the tzibur, the collective, he is protected by the merits of the community. When he is singled out individually, he exposes himself to the hazards of standing on his own merits and shortcomings. Hence the danger of plague.
Judaism creates a perfect equilibrium between the sense of yachid, the individual, and tzibur, the community.
"If one saves one life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world," say our sages. Yet Judaism realises that the individual can only actualise his potential by being a vibrant, active participant within the tzibur. He must assume a responsible role within the community, only then can he strive to fulfil his unique and special place as an individual. Only then is he a true rosh.