“Take a census of the entire congregation of Bnai Yisrael according to their families, by the households of their fathers, according to the number of names of each male, taken individually.” (BeMidbar 1:2)
Sefer BeMidbar begins with a census of Bnai Yisrael. Hashem commands Moshe to count the people. The phrase that Hashem uses to describe the counting of the nation is “se’uh et rosh” – lift the head – of the entire congregation of Bnai Yisrael. Our Sages ask why this particular phrase is used to describe the process of counting.
Our text of Rashi’s commentary does not include any comments on this question. However, Nachmanides quotes an explanation that he attributes to Rashi. According to Nachmanides’ version of Rashi, the phrase “lift the head” alludes to the instructions provided to an executioner. The executioner is instructed to lift the head – off of the shoulders – of the criminal. In other words, execute him.
Nachmanides explains that according to Rashi, this phrase – which alludes to execution – is employed as a foreshadowing. Those who were to be counted would ultimately be punished with death. Indeed this foreshadowing was accurate. Those that Moshe counted in this census died during the travels in the wilderness. This was their punishment to refusing to enter the Land of Israel.
Nachmanides asks what prompted Rashi to attribute this forewarning to the phrase “lift the head.” What compelled Rashi to explain the phrase in this manner?
“Count the sons of Leyve according to the households of their fathers, according to their families. Every male one month of age and above you should count of them.” (BeMidbar 3:15)
The shevet of Leyve was not included in the general census of the nation. Instead, Moshe was commanded to take a separate census of this shevet. In this command, Hashem does not use the phrase “lift the head.” Instead, Hashem employs the more literal term “count.” Why does Hashem use the phrase “lift the head” when commanding Moshe to take a census of the rest of the nation but the term “count” when commanding Moshe to take a census of Leyve?
Nachmanides suggests that Rashi’s interpretation is designed to address this question. The shevet of Leyve was not included in the decree upon the generation of the wilderness. The members of the shevet of Leyve did not die in the wilderness. Therefore, when commanding Moshe to count the rest of the nation, Hashem used the phrase “lift the head.” This phrase foreshadowed the eventual fate of the generation. However, this phrase is not used in the command to count the members of the shevet of Leyve. They were not destined to be included in the punishment.
Nachmanides rejects Rashi’s explanation of the phrase. He points out that there is a second census taken at the end of Sefer BeMidbar. This census preceded the entry into the Land of Israel. In commanding Moshe to take this census, Hashem again uses the phrase “lift the head.” However, in this case there is no foreshadowing attached to the phrase!
Despite this objection Nachmanides does not completely reject Rashi’s explanation of the phrase. Instead, he suggests that Rashi’s comments are not complete. He suggests the Rashi’s comments are based upon a midrash and a study of this midrash will reveal the meaning of Rashi’s interpretation.
Like Rashi, the midrash is concerned with the meaning to the phrase “lift the head.” The midrash explains that the significance of the phrase can be understood when compared to its use in another context. We all recall Yosef’s encounter in prison with Paroh’s wine butler and baker. Both were troubled by dreams and asked Yosef to provide interpretations. Yosef told the wine butler that his dream foretold that he would be reappointed to his former position in the royal household. Yosef told him that his head would be lifted and he would be restored to his prior position of prestige. Yosef told the baker that also his head would be lifted. However, in this context Yosef was telling the baker that he would be executed. In speaking to the wine butler and the baker, Yosef resorted to the same terminology. Each would have his head lifted. In reference to the wine butler, this indicated reappointment to a position of honor. In the instance of the baker, the phrase referred to his imminent execution.
The midrash explains that in using the phrase “lift the head,” Hashem is telling Moshe that Bnai Yisrael are confronted with to possible destinies. The phrase can be understood as an allusion to the destiny of the wine butler. Like the wine butler, Bnai Yisrael are poised to ascend to greatness. However, the phrase was used by Yosef to also allude to the destruction of the baker. Bnai Yisrael may also face destruction if they fail to follow the will of Hashem.
The explanation of the midrash provides an answer to Nachmanides’ objection to Rashi. The phrase “lift the head” consistently implies the possibility of multiple destinies. In our parasha, Hashem is telling Moshe that two possible destinies lie before Bnai Yisrael. They may either rise to greatness or be destroyed. So too, later in Sefer BeMidbar this phrase communicates that two possible destinies lie before the generation that will enter the land. They will either be successful in their conquest and possession of the land or – if they fail to follow Hashem – they too will be destroyed.
Nachmanides’ text of Rashi seems to present the content of the midrash in an abbreviated form. Rashi is not suggesting that Hashem’s command foreshadowed the destruction of the generation he was counting. But Hashem was providing a note of caution. Two possible fates were before the people. Because the people proved to be unworthy to enter the land, this caution turned out to be a foreshadowing. But Rashi is not suggesting that the destiny of the people was predetermined.
In order to more fully understand the midrash’s explanation of our pasuk, it is important to consider another question. Why did Yosef use the same figure – the lifting of one’s head – to describe restoration of honor and execution?
It seems that the image of lifting a person’s head indicates that the person is acknowledged and given special attention. This heightened scrutiny can produce positive or negative results. Paroh would give special attention to both of cases. But once this attention was bestowed, the results would vary. In the case of the wine butler, Paroh would decide that his imprisonment had been a harsh and adequate punishment for his failings. Having served his sentence, Paroh would decide that the wine butler should be reinstated. However when Paroh would reexamined the crimes of the baker, he would come to the opposite conclusion. He would decide that the baker should pay with his life for his crimes.
With this understanding, let us now return to the use of this image in our pasuk. Hashem is telling Moshe that the nation is faced with two possible and opposite destinies. Why are these the only possible destinies? Why is there no option for some other destiny – one that is less than greatness but not as harsh as absolute destruction?
The counting of Bnai Yisrael represents a special acknowledgment of the people. Bnai Yisrael will be appointed to serve as Hashem’s nation. This special relationship with Hashem is the source of all of the blessings described in Torah. But with this appointment comes with an expectation. As Hashem’s chosen, the head of the nation will be lifted. The behaviors and attitudes of the people will be closely scrutinized and held to a higher standard. Being chosen and special provides rewards but this status brings with it responsibilities and expectations. Hashem is telling Moshe that if these expectations are met, the people will enjoy the blessings associated with their special status as the chosen of Hashem. But if the people’s behaviors and expectations cannot stand the careful scrutiny that comes with their elevated status, then the people will face destruction.
 Sefer BeMidbar 26:2.
 Sefer Beresheit 40:1-19.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 1:3.