The Mishna in Masekhet Rosh Hashanah (16a) famously states that on Rosh Hashanah, all people on earth pass before God like “benei maron,” and the Gemara (18a) cites three different interpretations of this phrase. The first is that the Mishna refers to sheep, who pass through the entrance to the corral one-by-one. Rashi explains that the Gemara speaks here of the tithing process, in fulfillment of the command of ma’aser beheima – to bring one-tenth of one’s sheep each year as sacrifices. The herdsman would count each sheep as it passed by, marking every tenth sheep as ma’aser beheima. The Gemara’s second interpretation is that “benei maron” refers to a certain narrow road that led up a steep incline, which could be traveled only one person at a time. The third explanation is that the Mishna refers to the soldiers in King David’s army, who were counted one-by-one as they went out to battle.
According to all three explanations, the Mishna’s intent is to emphasize that we are each judged individually, based on our personal conduct over the course of the past year. Still, we might wonder about the particular significance of these three images – sheep, travelers walking up a narrow, steep road, and soldiers.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Mussar Ha-mishna, discerned a certain progression in these three explanations of “benei maron,” with regard to the standards demanded of those passing through. When it comes to ma’aser beheima, the vast majority of sheep are included in the count to determine the tithe; the only ones which are excluded are a tereifa (animal with a terminal condition) and those born under rare, unusual circumstances (see Mishna, Bekhorot 57a). The second image – the narrow, steep incline – involves a potentially dangerous trek, upon which only healthy, able-bodied individuals can safely embark. The third situation – that of King David’s soldiers – speaks of a superior army, whose troops quite obviously needed to be in outstanding physical shape.
If so, then the Mishna perhaps challenges us to aspire to the highest standards we can as we “pass through” the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. Rather than resigning ourselves to the standard of “sheep,” and feeling content with being “good enough,” free of obvious, major blemishes, we should endeavor to be worthy of “King David’s army,” to achieve excellence, each person according to his or her capacity and in his or her own individual way.
On Rosh Hashanah, the day which commemorates the creation of the human being, the creature uniquely endowed with the divine image, we are to reflect on our personal potential and commit ourselves to realize it in full. We are to recognize our ability to achieve far more than what we’ve attained until now, and to follow higher standards than we’ve followed until now. And thus the Gemara urges us to aspire to be more than mere “sheep,” and to reach the level of “soldiers,” the level of greatness that we capable of reaching.