“Moses Sees the Promised Land From Afar” by James Tissot, ca. 1900
“Moses Sees the Promised Land From Afar” by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Moses and me: chasing the flock back into the gazebo

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Devarim

Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22


As Moses begins his great farewell address to the Jewish people, I would like to discuss why God chose Moses for the task of leading his people.

There is a beautiful midrash (Shemot Rabbah 2:2) that explains: Moses was a shepherd, tending the flock of his father-in-law in the rugged wilderness of Midian. One day, as Moses was working, a young lamb ran away. Moses, unwilling to risk the loss of even one lamb, chased the animal through the grass and across the fields. Finally, the lamb stopped on the banks of a stream and drank like it hadn’t had anything to drink in weeks.

“I did not know you were thirsty,” said Moses. “Now I see why you ran away.” Moses gently picked up the lamb and carried it back to the flock.

At that moment, says the midrash, Moses heard God’s voice call out: “Just like the lamb was thirsty for water, so the Jews are thirsty for freedom. And just as you, Moses, brought the lamb back with kindness and understanding, so, too, will you lead my people to the Promised Land.”

The midrash is full of subtle depth. On the surface, this is a story about Moses’ leadership. Upon reflection, however, it’s a glimpse into the nature of a rebellious soul.

The runway lamb is symbolic of the lost Jew, and Moses represents the leader who lovingly reaches out to those who have disaffiliated. On the surface, when a Jew wanders far from the Jewish pastures, it’s a rebellion, or even a betrayal. Not so, the midrash shows us in vivid detail. Moses follows his precious lamb, knowing that it is not rebellion, not a lack of love, but rather a spiritual thirst that drives them far from home as a result of a hostile environment or spiritual malnutrition in their community.

It’s all too easy for a shepherd to get angry at the rebel sheep. But Moses catches up with the sheep and discovers that it ran away because of an essential thirst for warmth, love and God. And like Moses, so must we.

Only a Jew is afraid of a gazebo.

At Stanford Chabad on the holiday of Sukkot, we put up a sukkah in White Plaza, the center of Stanford’s campus. Of course, the purpose of it is to invite Jewish students in to celebrate the holiday. But how do you know who’s Jewish?

It is very easy. You watch people approaching and see what they do when they realize it’s a sukkah.

If they walk in and ask what’s this hut? And I say, “It recalls the clouds of glory that protected the Jews in the desert.” And they say, “Wow, this is beautiful.” They are not Jews.

If they ask, “Could I make a blessing on the lulav and etrog?” they are definitely not Jewish. They’re Mormon.

If, however, when they realize it’s a sukkah, and they cross White Plaza to the other side to avoid it, those are the Jews. I race after them.

You see, they are so Jewish. Why are they crossing the street? Because only a Jew is afraid of a gazebo.

They are crossing the street because the sukkah touches them. They are engaged with the holiday. They are celebrating Sukkot. But not in the traditional way. Their running away from the sukkah, like the runaway sheep, discloses that their Jewishness is alive and active.

Now it is our task to help them recognize that and help them re-engage with their tradition in a rich and meaningful way.

Like Moses, we need to understand the deep spiritual thirst that compels so many of our people to drink at alien fountains. We shouldn’t judge the runway children, but should empathize with their disappointments, lift their spirits and lovingly bring them back home.

Rabbi Dov Greenberg
Rabbi Dov Greenberg

Rabbi Dov Greenberg leads Stanford Chabad and lectures across the world. He is a trailblazing Hasidic teacher known for condensing deep mystical concepts into compact, relevant sound bites.