Parashat Vayeshev

Shepherd Consciousness

The thoughts of a shepherd may be sublime, but they cannot take him away from the task at hand.

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Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

Our ancestors were shepherds. The Torah tells us that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Rachel, and King David all herded goats and sheep. And in this week's Torah portion, Vayeshev, we see that Joseph also worked as a shepherd alongside his brothers (Genesis 37:2).

canfei nesharimThe greatest of our early Jewish leaders chose this profession, a livelihood scorned by surrounding cultures. Years after Joseph's exile to Egypt and rise to viceroy of the king of Egypt, when his brothers came to him in exile, Joseph presented them to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. The question that most interested the king was: "What is your occupation?" "We are shepherds," they replied to Pharaoh, "like our fathers before us (Genesis 47:3)." Shepherding was not a respected occupation in Egypt, and Pharaoh relegated Joseph's family to the far-off land of Goshen.

Why did so many of the original leaders of the Jewish people choose to become shepherds? Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, explains that the advantage of shepherding may be found in the secluded lifestyle of the shepherd. While engaged with flocks, ambling through the hills and valleys, the shepherd is cut off from the noisy distractions of society, thus enabling ample time for inner reflection.

Solitude vs. Connection

Additionally, the labor is not intensive. Unlike farming, shepherding does not require one to exert a great deal of energy in mundane matters. Nevertheless, the shepherd is concerned with the actual physical needs of the flock. A shepherd does not live in an ivory tower, immersed in artificial philosophies detached from life; rather, the shepherd is constantly engaged with the real world, seeking water, shade, and good fodder for animals. The thoughts and musings of the shepherd may be sublime and lofty, but they cannot take the shepherd away from the task at hand.

This explanation requires further examination, especially for Rabbi Kook, who throughout his writing emphasizes the importance of the individual's connection and contribution to society. What is the value of seclusion and solitude? Is the desire for solitude a positive trait? How do we balance reclusive behavior with the greater ideals of refining humanity and elevating the universe? In other words: Is the ideal to connect to the world, or to disconnect?

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Fivel Yedidya Glasser has been involved in Jewish environmental teaching and guiding for 6 years with diverse groups including Yeshivat Torat Chaim, Teva Adventure, Camp Yavneh, Brandeis Bardin Institute, and Machon Nesiya. He is currently on a hiatus from teaching and has returned to full-time Torah study at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva.