December 8th, 2021
By Alex Weisz
When we last saw Joseph and his brothers, Joseph was testing them to see if they had changed and developed over their many years apart. They pass this test by swearing to sacrifice themselves instead of allowing their brother Benjamin to be taken prisoner, which they claim would effectively kill their father, Jacob. Overcome by emotion, Joseph reveals himself to them and invites the entire household of Jacob to find refuge from the famine in Egypt under his protection. Upon arriving to Egypt for good, Joseph’s brothers are required to introduce themselves to Pharaoh by stating their name & occupation. The brothers answer “we, your servants, are shepherds, as also our fathers”. 1
Though this may seem like a minor detail, it is worth exploring the common theme of prominent shepherds in the Hebrew Bible. Not only were all three patriarchs and Jacob’s sons shepherds, but so were Moses, King David, as well as the prophet Amos and Rabbi Akiva. There is a noticeable trend here that major leaders of the Israelites began as humble shepherds, gently tending to their flock. Even God Godself is referred to metaphorically as a shepherd on several occasions!23 While not a prominent occupation today, shepherding is one of the oldest professions in the world and was extremely common in the ancient world. Shepherds tended flocks of sheep in order to utilize their wool, milk, and meat. Though the atrocities of the contemporary factory farming industry may come to some readers’ minds, shepherds were and are only capable of sustaining so many sheep at once, and must protect and attend to their needs. This was a full-time profession that required constant attention! The phrase “herding cats” means that getting a group to accomplish something in a timely manner is extremely difficult – nevertheless, despite the legendary stubbornness of house cats, shepherding sheep is no simple feat either.
The elevated status of the shepherd is most clearly stated in a midrash about Moses.4 While working as a shepherd for his father-in-law’s flock following his exile from Egypt, a single lamb of Moses’ flock ran away. Sensing an emergency, Moses ran after the lamb to a small, shaded pool of water, where the lamb began to drink. Moses exclaimed “I didn’t know you ran away because you were thirsty! You must be exhausted.” Once the lamb finished drinking, Moses carried the lamb on his shoulder to return it to the flock. The Rabbis write that upon seeing this episode, God exclaimed: “Since you tended to the needs of a single one of the flock of a human being with such overwhelming love, you shall be the shepherd of my flock [Israel].” Moses’ concern for even individual sheep displayed his ability to lead the Israelites – just as another shepherd, King David, eventually elevated to leading his people.
With all of these legendary shepherds who have led the Jewish people, God’s flock, founded by a family of shepherds, what lessons should we take today from this ancient profession? The shepherd is an example of how humanity should live up to their foundational duty to rule over God’s creation. A shepherd who mistreats or neglects his flock will have little wool or milk to provide for himself, if they do not escape or die first. For a shepherd to profit from their work, they must be gentle and attentive, not only to the flock, but to the environment from which the sheep will graze, as overly taxing the land will render it permanently unusable. Though the shepherd derives benefit from their flock and the land, being cruel or focused exclusively on the short-term commodification of these animals is a bad approach to tending a flock.
One who is attentive to the needs of all those around them, including the environment, is worthy of leadership. The Israelites were a humble people, lowly shepherds, who were graced with divine favor. The question we must ask ourselves today is whether we live up to their legacy – are we humble folks who maintain God’s creation so that we may survive ourselves, as well as leaving a world behind for our descendents? Are we kind to all, and especially to the animals? Or are we concerned with our short-term needs, our short-term wants, at the expense of those most vulnerable in our society and world?
This Shabbat, may we reflect on our priorities and our actions – not only what we do, but how we do it. May we return to our noble spiritual heritage of the shepherd before our consumption seals our collective fate.