The Torah portion, Mishpatim, is often read on a special Shabbat called Shekalim, as on the upcoming Shabbat. Shabbat Shekalim was the time when each Israelite contributed a half-shekel to conduct a census. The Torah specifies that we do not count people, but rather the objects they submit.
Interestingly, the parshah Mishpatim begins with the laws of slavery that Israel must observe. These laws describe the rights of the slave and the limitations of the owner. To a generation of slaves redeemed from Egypt, hearing that slaves have rights and owners have limitations is revolutionary. When we couple the shekalim custom with the Torah statement of slave rights, interesting concepts emerge.
The idea that we are forbidden to reduce people to mere numbers is crucial to our understanding that every person retains their human rights and dignities. The same concept is introduced in the laws of slavery, contrary to when Egypt taught us that people can indeed be reduced to property.
Throughout Jewish texts, there is discussion as to why we cannot count people. This even applies to counting members of a minyan. Numbers represent commodities as well as cost and benefit. Numbers strip the person of their identity and their unity within a larger collective, whether it is a collective of family, nation or humanity.
Jewish tradition has taken these ideas and limitations and seized the moment to create customs of positive blessings. When counting the members of a minyan, it is common to recite a Torah verse that conveys a blessing and contains 10 words. Each word is assigned to a person present. In that way we offer each person a place in the whole verse that will be recited. Rather than reduce anyone to a discrete number, we have elevated everyone to a collective blessing.