Counting Sheep – The Thought That Counts – Rav Shames
This week’s parsha finishes with a list of the korbanot that are to be offered on special occasions, the Mussaf. At first glance it seems to be a very technical list of precisely what should be brought when. A closer examination of the pessukim shows clear patterns, and groupings of the holidays that can be classified by the exact formula of the day’s korban mussaf. This can be a wonderful activity for the Shabbat table, to figure out which holidays match which others by korbanot mussaf.
I would like to offer some food for thought to the discussion as well, and I would like to start with last week’s parsha. In Parshat Balak we find Bilaam asks to construct seven altars. On each and every one of these he offers a bull and a ram. This idea seems very similar to what we have in our parsha, an offering that is a combination of various elements, bulls, rams etc. It would seem that this was the standard form of Divine service (and divine service), to offer a variety of different types of animals.
However, there is a very significant difference between the offering of Bilaam and that of the korbanot musaf — the sheep. When Bilaam makes his offering he uses only bulls and rams, as opposed to the pesukim in our parsha where we find that in addition to the bulls and rams there are also sheep. I believe that this is not insignificant, and it reflects the inner motive of the offering. A bull is a very large and expensive animal. The symbolism is one of grandeur and pomp. It is very impressive, and when one is actually brought in the Mikdash numerous Kohanim are needed to deal with it.
On Pesach we have the same exact korban musaf each day. On Sukkoth the korban changes – the rams and sheep remain the same but the bulls start at thirteen in number on the first day and become less and less each day of the chag. According to Chazal the fluctuating number of bulls of the mussaf of Sukkot serve to symbolize all seventy nations of the world. A single bull is meant to be the “ambassador” of an entire nation in the “United Nations” of Sukkoth.
We also find the bull as the offering of choice in the famous “showdown” on Har HaCarmel with Eliyahu and the prophets of Baal. Each side chose a bull and the one that was consumed was to represent the “true” faith. Again we find the bull as symbolizing something very large and important.
By contrast a sheep is not very exciting; it is small and rather inexpensive and not really the candidate for the service in the Mikdash at all. It could be for this reason that the sheep is the Korban Pesach, an affordable offering for all sectors of the nation.
I find it interesting that this may be yet another contrast between Bilaam and Avraham Avenu. The Mishna portrays them as exact opposites in many ways, but the underlying theme is that while Bilaam is full of himself and only seems to be interested in God on a superficial level, Avraham is the true servant of Hashem whose gentle and humble qualities reflect his inner motivation. On the way to the Akeida, Yitzchak asks his father, “where is the sheep for the offering?” We are usually so caught up in the dramatic story that we wait for the answer from Avraham Avenu, but I think the assumption of the question has a lot to teach us as well. Yitzchak assumed that the offering would be a sheep, what must have been the standard for Avraham. The sheep represents quality and not quantity. It is something that comes from the individual and is offered to God, not because God needs it but as a concrete gesture of the finite corporal human’s attempt to get a bit closer to the infinite divine God. The offering does not have to be fancy, flashy or expensive. It truly is the thought that counts.
With this attitude towards korbanot we can feel the strain and conviction of Avraham’s answer to this son that “God will show us the sheep”. He will indicate to us what it is that qualifies as the correct sacrifice to Him.
Bilaam does not understand sheep and would not be caught dead making such a pitiful offering. In fact, when he arrives to get the job done, the Passuk says that Balak prepared for him and his ministers a bit of an hors d’œuvre. It says that he sent a “bull and a sheep” and Rashi comments “a small amount- one bull and one sheep”. I think we can understand the main problem was the sheep that was simply not seen as being in his league.
If we shift to this week’s parsha I think we gain a lot of respect for the sheep. It is the sheep that are the constant form of avodat Hashem, as they constitute the daily Tamid offering. When we get to Shabbat, which on one hand is a special day and on the other hand is not really a holiday, we double the daily korban and add another two sheep. Our constant and consistent connection with God is realized through the simple korban of the sheep. And on the really festive holidays when we go all out and invest in more expensive items, and I’m sure the press will cover the bull and ram offerings, we do not abandon the sheep. We are not to be confused by all of the pomp and circumstance. We are not to think that our service of God is for special occasions and the rest of the time we can deal with our own issues. We should never misunderstand the value of large gifts as well as small ones. The sheep remain an integral part of the musaf offering, reminding us that what stands behind all of the process is the small and simple things.
The Korban Tamid is the necessary introduction to the mussaf as it forms the basic building block of our connection to God.
[Please note that there is a large debate amongst the commentators as to whether or not we are to seek meaning in the mitzvoth or they are beyond the scope of human logic and therefore we should not bother to try to understand them. Even according to those who posit that we should engage in such a discussion, there is a question as to what extent. The Rambam writes that there are definitely reasons behind the mitzvoth, however this is only as far as the general concepts go. The specific details are beyond our realm. The example that he gives is that when it comes to the concept of Korbanot, one can surely explain the need for an additional korban on special occasions. However he believes that there is no way for us to explain why a certain offering was mandated on one day while another one was required on another.
Our discussion above would need to follow other opinions who seek to find meaning in the details as well.]