Part 2: Why Our Ancestors Were Shepherds

Dear Friends,

Our father, Yaacov, was a shepherd who was devoted to the welfare of his flock, and towards the end of his life, he refers to his Creator as, "the One Who shepherds me from my inception until this day" (Genesis 48:15). One of the reasons why our ancestors chose to be shepherds is because this vocation gave them the opportunity to emulate the nurturing and caring ways of the Shepherd of all life. The idea that the Creator is also the Shepherd is expressed in the following verses from Psalm 23 – a psalm which we sing during the third Shabbos meal:

"A Song of David: The Compassionate One is my Shepherd, I shall not lack. He makes me lie down in pleasant green pastures; He leads me beside the peaceful waters. He restores my soul; He leads me on paths of righteousness for His Name's sake. Yea, though I walk in the valley overshadowed by death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me."

"He restores my soul" - Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains David's words in the following manner: The Compassionate Shepherd is not only concerned about my physical welfare; He is also concerned about my spiritual welfare. This is the sole goal of any change that the Master of all life may bring about in my own life. Should rest become harmful for me, then He will cause me unrest and agitation. But if this lack of peace should prove dangerous to my spiritual welfare, He will grant me rest again. Whatever He may decree for me, be it change or rest, is intended solely for my welfare.

David experienced much suffering in his life. In his youth, he was despised by his older brothers, and he was assigned the task of shepherding the sheep, which took him away from his family. He was later persecuted by King Saul, who become jealous of him and tried to kill him. Much later, after David become a successful king, one of his own sons led a rebellion against him. When David was king, he also suffered for a number of years from a very difficult illness. David refers to his many trials in his psalms, yet he never abandons his faith in the Shepherd Who guides his life. He knows that just as the sincere shepherd is dedicated to the ultimate welfare of the sheep, so too, his own Shepherd is dedicated to his ultimate welfare; thus, even when David cries out in anguish, he does not despair. Yes, the "rod" of his Shepherd caused him much suffering, but the psalms reveal David's awareness that this suffering brought him atonement, as well as a deeper understanding of life's purpose. As a result, he became a more elevated and refined person.

A human being can view the Compassionate One as, "my Shepherd." This message of Psalm 23 has given hope and comfort to people all over the world. As Rabbi Hirsch writes in his introduction to the Book of Psalms: "David did not expect that the influence of his songs would be limited solely to the spiritual and moral edification and refinement of the generations of his own people. He confidently felt that his psalms would have an impact also upon the spirits and emotions of all the other nations."

The Compassionate One is also known as the Shepherd of Israel, and in another psalm, we find the following description of the Divine care of our people on the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land:

"Then He caused His people to journey like sheep, and guided them like a flock in the wilderness" (Psalm 78:52).

In this spirit, the Prophet Jeremiah proclaimed to the nations the following prophecy regarding the future ingathering of Israel during the messianic age:

"Hear the word of the Compassionate One, you nations, relate it in distant islands, and say: The One Who scattered Israel will gather him in and guard him as a shepherd guards his flock." (Jeremiah 31:9)

The following are excerpts from a similar Divine promise which is recorded in the Book of Ezekiel:

"For thus said My Master, the Compassionate and Just One: Behold, I am here, and I will seek out My sheep, and I will tend them. As a shepherd tends his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so I will tend to My sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on the day of cloud and darkness. I will remove them from the peoples and gather them from the lands and bring them to their soil, and I will shepherd them upon the mountains of Israel, in the streams and in all the land's habitations…For the lost I will search; the banished I will retrieve; the broken I will bind; the ill I will strengthen...Then they will know that I, the Compassionate One their God, am with them, and that they are My people, the Family of Israel; thus spoke My Master, the Compassionate and Just One." (34:11-13,16,30)

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. The Compassionate One proclaimed to us, "Now, you are My sheep, the sheep of My pasture" (Ezekiel 34:31); thus, on Yom Kippur, we pray, "We are Your sheep and You are our Shepherd."

2. We are to be the holy sheep of the Holy One. Some Jewish communities have a sweet custom on Simchas Torah – the festival when we rejoice with the Torah – which reminds us of this idea. At the completion of a cycle of dancing, someone calls out to the congregation, "Tzon Kedoshim!" - Holy Sheep! And everyone then responds by bleating, "Baa."

As we discussed in previous letters, within the human being can be found the qualities of each of the creatures within the creation; thus, the human being is to dedicate these qualities to serving the Divine purpose. The above custom reminds us that we have the trait of sheep within us, and this trait can be used to follow the life-giving path of our Shepherd.

3. Life's temptations, trials, and tribulations may have caused us to stray from the life-giving path of "mitzvos" - sacred deeds which enable us to elevate all areas of our existence. If we have strayed from this path, we should not despair, for as long as we still remember that there exists a path of mitzvos which give life meaning, there is hope for our souls. We should therefore turn to the Compassionate One, our Shepherd, and pray the following words of David: "I have strayed like a lost sheep; seek Your servant, for I have not forgotten Your mitzvos" (Psalm 119:176).

4. If you would like a book about inspiring and comforting themes within the Book of Psalms, I recommend "Tehillim Treasury" by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer. For information, visit:

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