Parashat Bamidbar begins with God’s command to Moshe, “Se’u et rosh kol adat Benei Yisrael” – to count the nation. Rashi, citing the Midrash, presents a surprising interpretation of this phrase, which can be understood literally to mean, “Lift the head of the entire congregation of Israelites.” According to Rashi, this phrase is intended to evoke the gruesome image of an executioner who “lifts the head” of the condemned criminal to decapitate him.
Already the Ramban, in his Torah commentary, raises the question of why Rashi would introduce such a negative image in this context, when God simply issues a command to conduct a census. There does not appear to be any indication of anger or of looming catastrophe when this command was given, and it thus seems difficult to understand why Rashi chose to interpret this verse as foreboding doom.
The Ramban initially suggests that Rashi saw this phrase as foreshadowing the tragic end of this generation, which died in the wilderness as a result of the sin of the spies. The census included all men from age twenty – the precise same population against whom the decree of death was issued after the sin of the spies (14:29). Perhaps, then, Rashi was alluding to the tragic fact that these people who are now being counted in preparation to enter Eretz Yisrael would ultimately be destined to perish in the wilderness.
The Ramban then writes that Rashi understood this verse as alluding to the fact that “if they are meritorious, they will rise to greatness…and if they are not meritorious, they will all die.” The Ramban cites verses from other contexts to show that the phrase “se’u et rosh” could refer either to a designation of special stature, or as a warning of doom and calamity. Accordingly, he writes, the Midrash here notes the two opposite destinies that potentially await Benei Yisrael, depending on whether they act as they should.
The obvious question, however, arises as to why this message is conveyed specifically here, in the context of the census. What is the connection between the census and the two possibilities of greatness or calamity?
The Klausenberger Rebbe explained that the census underscored the indispensable role which each and every member of the nation plays. It conveyed the message that Am Yisrael requires the contribution of every individual, each achieving to the best of his or her personal capabilities. Each member of the nation was counted because each plays a vitally important role that nobody else can play. This notion allows each individual to achieve great distinction, but also to fail. Even a person with modest ability can achieve “nesi’ut rosh” – a stature of excellence – if he maximizes his limited potential and does the most he is capable of doing. Conversely, however, an exceptionally talented person who achieves great success and makes a significant contribution will be called to task if he failed to maximize his potential, if he fell short of the achievements he is capable of. This, the Klausenberger Rebbe suggested, is the message of the census, and thus in this context Chazal remind us that this message gives us both the opportunity to achieve greatness, as well as the prospect of failure if we do not live up to our full potential.