On Shepherds and Seeing

Headshot of Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Headshot of Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Rabbi Adam Greenwald


Miller Introduction to Judaism Program

American Jewish University

Rabbi Adam Greenwald is the Director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University, the largest learning program for those exploring conversion to Judaism in North America. He also serves as Lecturer in Rabbinics at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. In 2016, Rabbi Greenwald received the Covenant Foundation's Pomegranate Prize in Jewish Education.

Rabbi Greenwald is the editor of On One Foot, an introduction to Judaism textbook and curriculum, in wide use across the US and Canada. He is a Fellow with the National Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL)'s "Rabbis Without Borders" initiative and speaks and teaches nationwide on issues of conversion, inclusion, and engagement of Jewish millennials.

Prior to coming to the Intro Program, he served as Revson Rabbinic Fellow at IKAR, one of America's most innovative spiritual communities. He received his BA in History from UCLA and his MA and ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 2011. 

posted on June 26, 2013
Torah Reading

Five summers ago, I had the privilege of spending ten days living with a Navajo shepherd family. On Earl and Sadie's ranch, high in the Chuska mountains and far from electricity or running water, I got a glimpse at a lifestyle that seemed to belong to another age. Earl spent his days tending to the sheep and nights were spent around a blazing fire, which was the only light in the otherwise velvet black night.

After several days on the ranch, Earl shared with us an almost unbelievable fact: He claimed that he could distinguish between each of his sheep. In his flock of hundreds of nearly identical animals, he knew exactly who was who-which lamb belonged to which ewe, who was more stubborn and who was more docile, he even had names picked out for many of them. For us, sheep are virtually synonymous with uniformity and lack of individual identity, but to a true shepherd each and every sheep is unique.

Like Earl, nearly every one of our major Biblical figures were shepherds. Abraham tended flocks, as did his sons and grandsons. A young King David developed his knack with a slingshot keeping predators away from his father's herds. Even God is referred to as a shepherd in the most stirring and famous piece of Biblical poetry, which begins: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

Moses also spent a period of his early life as a shepherd. After fleeing Pharaoh's palace, Moses embraced what he hoped would be a simple life, tending the flocks of his father in law. It is while he is deep in the wilderness with his sheep that he encounters God and is given a new mission, to become the redeemer of his People and their guide to the Promised Land. While no explicit reason is given in the Torah for why God selects Moses, the Rabbis draw a close connection between Moses' role as a shepherd and his fitness to lead the Jewish People. They tell the following tale:

When Moses was shepherding the flock of his father in law, a little kid fled from him. Moses pursed it all the way to an oasis, where he found the kid drinking. He approached the little one and said: "I didn't know that you were so thirsty. You must also be tired." And he lifted the kid onto his shoulders and the two returned together. Upon seeing that, the Holy One smiled and said: "As this one has compassion on his flock, he is suitable to lead My flock, the People of Israel." (Exodus Rabbah 2:2)

Moses' essential gift, his qualification for leading the Jewish People, was his capacity to notice each one of the living things in his charge, to recognize their unique needs, and to care enough to make sure that no one got left behind. It is remarkable that in our Tradition, a leader is not chosen for their charisma or personal strength, for their ability to speak sweetly or lie effectively. The qualification for Biblical leadership is an ability to look at mass of people and see individuals, each full of their own unique blend of dreams and desires, and to care for each of them as such.

We have all encountered those special souls who have the ability to make us feel uniquely seen and valued even in the midst of group-a grandparent who makes each grandchild feel like they are the most special, a teacher who goes out of his way to help every single student succeed, a doctor who actually takes the time to sit and listen to each of her patients. In a world of big institutions and teeming crowds, we hunger to be noticed, seen, cared for. For that reason, the commentator Rashi teaches in a comment on the beginning of this parasha, "calling people by name is an act of love." (Rashi on Exodus 1:1)