Yesterday, we noted the Mishna’s famous comment – which is mentioned in the U-netaneh Tokef prayer – that on Rosh Hashanah we all pass before the Almighty for judgment “ki-vnei maron.” The Gemara (18a) cites different interpretations of this phrase, the first of which is that it refers to sheep passing through the door to the corral. Rashi explains that ranchers needed to count their animals for the purpose of the ma’aser beheima obligation, which requires offering one-tenth of one’s kosher domesticated animals as sacrifices. Herdsmen would have each animal pass before them one by one, and mark every tenth animal as a sacrifice for the ma’aser beheima obligation. According to the first view cited by the Gemara, this is the meaning of “ki-vnei maron.”
Why would this image – of a shepherd counting his sheep for the fulfillment of his ma’aser beheima requirement – be invoked as an example of our individual judgment on Rosh Hashanah? Why did the Mishna choose specifically the analogy of counting sheep as the means by which to illustrate our judgment?
Rav Shmuel Rubenstein, in his She’eirit Menachem (vol. 3, p. 308), suggested that this image was intended to provide encouragement and reassurance as we contemplate the frightening judgment of Rosh Hashanah. The ma’aser system symbolizes the fact that by definition, not all members of a group will be exceptional. In every group of ten sheep in the pen, only one is designated as sacred, earmarked as a sacrifice to God. As the shepherd surveys his sheep one by one, he accepts them all for what they are, assigning only one-tenth of them a special stature of sanctity. The others are perfectly acceptable as ordinary sheep, without the distinction of being named a sacrifice. There is no expectation whatsoever that each and every sheep will be offered as a sacrifice in the Mikdash; each is valued in its own right as part of the herd. The message for us on the Days of Awe, Rav Rubenstein suggests, is that each and every one of us has his or her role to fill, and we are not all expected to be a “korban,” reaching an especially high stature. We need to strive to be the best we can, not to be the best of the entire “herd.” There will always be those who achieve more, in any area of life, and this should not disturb or discourage us. God judges each and every one of us on the basis of our individual capabilities and circumstances, and the individual roles we are meant to fill. We are not expected to be like anybody else, but rather to reach our maximum individual potential. This must be our ultimate objective as we retrospect during the Yamim Noraim and set our goals for the upcoming year.