Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23
Jeremiah 1:1-2:3 (Sephardic custom)
It is the greatest story ever told, the saga of the Jewish people’s enslavement for more than 200 years under mighty Egypt and their dramatic redemption, culminating at Mount Sinai, where they are transformed from fearful slaves into a proud nation with a mission and a promised homeland.
The portion Shemot that begins the Book of Exodus is also the story of the emergence of the quintessential Jewish leader, Moses. Who was Moses? Why, indeed, did God choose this unknown Israelite refugee shepherd from Midian to lead his people out of Egypt and be the conduit for the transmission of God’s wisdom to this world?
What is it about shepherding that produces Jewish leaders? Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — all shepherds; all the 12 tribes, including Joseph in his youth — shepherds as well. Moses, who grew up in a palace, finds himself in the desert babysitting his father-in-law’s sheep. Years later, a young shepherd named David is plucked from obscurity to become King of Israel.
The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:2) answers by way of a story. “Moses was shepherding his father-in-law’s sheep one day, when one of them bolted. Moses followed the runaway animal until it reached a body of water, where it stopped for a drink. Moses compassionately said to the sheep, ‘If only I had known that you thirsted for water. You must be exhausted from running …’ Saying this, he scooped up the animal, placed it on his shoulders and headed back to his flock. Said God: ‘If this is how he cares for the sheep of man, he is definitely fit to shepherd Mine …’ ”
When one reflects on this story, we learn a profound lesson about the nature of Jewish leadership, and what God looks for in a leader. It is not taught in academies and universities, neither is it learned in leadership courses. Rather, it is cultivated by a sense of responsibility for the most vulnerable, by being sensitive to the needs of each individual and not just the causes of the privileged and the majority.
It is the nature of leaders to surround themselves with “yes men” and cater to the constituency that supports them. In Moses we find the opposite. His greatness was that he loved and cared for every member of the flock entrusted to him, never reconciling himself to the fact that some people are just not worth losing sleep over. He put his life on the line for the Jews who violated Judaism’s most sacred tenet just days after they were given the commandment to not worship idols. He never gave up trying to make peace with his nemeses Datan and Aviram, who tried to have him killed for the crime of saving a fellow Jew from an Egyptian taskmaster. And even Korach, who led a mutiny against him, was the recipient of never-ending overtures for reconciliation. God himself pleads with Moses numerous times to distance himself from these troublemakers and let them suffer the consequences, but Moses, faithful shepherd of Israel, is concerned with the fate of every individual.
But there is another layer to this midrash. What Moses understood from his years of shepherding was that when a single sheep leaves the group and goes off on its own, it isn’t an act of rebellion. It’s just thirsty, and its leaders have not been able to quench its thirst. So, too, every Jew is precious; no one is expendable. When Jews wander off from their community, or even reject the Judaism they grew up with, it is a cry for help rather than insubordination. They are looking for inspiration, searching for meaning. Rather than criticizing, Moses lifts them up and says: I’m sorry, I didn’t realize your spiritual needs weren’t being met.
We need leaders like Moses today, to show us how to recognize the inherent spark of holiness in every person and embrace them with the nourishing waters of our tradition. For when this is done with love, the sheep will come back to the flock.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.