Tuesday, January 22, 2008


(Picture by Carole Ordidge)

Tu b’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, is a good time to reflect on our relationship and responsibility to our own selves and to the natural world. Reflection is not always easy, especially in this fast-paced world. But we can learn something about reflection, and even about our own souls, by studying our ancestors.

From Canfei Nesharim

By Fivel Yedidya Glasser, with contributions from Rabbi Chanan Morrison

Our ancestors were shepherds. The Torah tells us that our forefathers, as well as Moshe Rebbeinu, Rachel Immeinu and King David all herded goats and sheep. And in the Torah portion of Vayeishev we see that Joseph (Yosef) also worked as a shepherd alongside his brothers. The greatest of our early Jewish leaders chose this profession, a livelihood scorned by surrounding cultures. Years after Yosef’s exile to Egypt and rise to viceroy of the king of Egypt, when his brothers came to him in exile, Yosef 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." Shepherding was not a respected occupation in Egypt, and Pharaoh relegated Yosef’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. Additionally, the labor is not intensive. Unlike farming, shepherding does not require one to exert a great deal of energy in mundane matters. 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. 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 the 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, however, requires further examination, especially for Rabbi Kook, who emphasizes the importance of the individual's connection and contribution to society throughout his writings. 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?

Let us first examine through the teachings of Rabbi Kook what occurs when one engages in the inner-reflection that exemplifies "shepherd consciousness":

“The greater the soul, the more it must struggle in order to find itself; the more the depths of the human soul are hidden from the conscious mind. One must have extended solitude and hitbodedut (self-reflective prayer), examining ideas, deepening thoughts, and expanding the mind, until finally the soul will truly reveal itself, unveiling some of the splendor of its brilliant inner light.”

In order to cultivate one's own greatness, it is necessary to develop a deep soul-awareness. This is best accomplished through silence and isolation. When one truly engages in such a practice, it will inevitably have a positive influence both in one's own life and also on one's surroundings. The intent of this withdrawal is ultimately to have a positive impact on the larger world, and not for mere personal spiritual fulfillment.

The goal is not to engage in a personal spiritual path that is disassociated from the rest of the world. Rather, the aspiration is the opposite – the solitude of the shepherd ultimately enables him to reconnect and even provide for the larger world on a spiritual level.

The silence of the shepherd is not just the absence of speech. It is a sublime language of silence, flowing from an outpouring of the soul, a vehicle of ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration). The depths of the soul demand silence. Silence is full of life, revealing treasures from the beauty of wisdom.

Yet today's hi-tech, DSL-connected world does not leave enough space for an individual to hear silence. Even with wireless access, are we able to access the inner recesses of our own being?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that a Jew should spend one hour a day in hitbodedut. This means that every Jewish person should set aside a significant period of time to simply be with G-d. Not to pray formally, study or engage in mitzvoth. Rather, to simply be. It can include mundane conversation with G-d, or soul-wrenching self-analysis. In this sacred time we can come to taste the Divine encounter that our forefathers taught us through their example as shepherds. This one hour of being with G-d “of simply being” will come to inform how we are and what we do in the world.

When we are too caught up in experiencing the world without “shepherd consciousness” we tend to make decisions from our own narrow, "get-ahead" reality. When we focus too much on "doing," without making time for "being," that is to say, communing with the Divine, we automatically make decisions that transform the earth in negative ways. This is the source of many of the environmental problems we face today. A society that is driven by consumption and industrial development can overlook deforesting the rainforests or irrevocably and negatively impacting the climate. It is precisely the accessing of our inner selves that enables us to encounter the larger picture of our own reality.

Much of today’s environmental crisis stems from laziness, detachment and simply cutting corners, not malicious destruction. If everyone, from the average consumer to the corporate CEO, dedicated time each day to rekindle their own inner-potential as vehicles for G-d in the world, their use of the natural world would be informed by their relationship with the Creator of the natural world. It does not really matter if one is controlling a multi-national corporation or running a household, the reality is that mindfulness of the bigger picture is an essential tool for any individual who cares about the world in which we live.

We do not each need to become shepherds to learn the lesson of "shepherd consciousness." A simple commitment to withdraw from the world for a brief period and engage the more spiritual realms will provide us with a broader perspective on our own lives and the decisions we make. To put it in other words, we need to focus on being human beings, not human doings. If we are to stand a chance of returning to ecological balance, we need to regain the inner spiritual balance and clarity of vision of our ancestors.


At January 22, 2008 at 6:54:00 PM EST, Anonymous Space Cadet said...

My sentiments exactly -- except that I'd rather be a shepherd minus the sheep!

At January 22, 2008 at 9:46:00 PM EST, Blogger Gandalin said...


Thank you for sharing this post. There are many interesting observations here, most of which are probably above my level.

From my experience, though, I want to emphasize one thing: the humbleness, or humility of the shepherd.

I once lived in a community in another culture, in which sheepherding was one of the major forms of economic activity.

Sheepherders were hired, and it was truly the lowest, most menial, most poorly compensated job in the world.

The sheepherders lived out in the wilderness with their sheep, and were supplied with a shack, firewood, coffee, flour, shortening, and sugar. And a dollar a day.

There was no employment below the level of the sheepherder.

I think that was also largely true in olden days. Dovid haMelech, for example, herded sheep as the youngest brother; this was the job assigned to the least significant and most overlooked of Jesse's sons.

The transition made by Moshe Rabbenu was extraordinarily dramatic. Adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, he grew up in the royal-divine precincts of the most advanced and wealthy civilization of its era, and although it is not explicitly stated in the Chumash, we can presume that he was educated to the highest levels possible, and that he enjoyed the highest standard of living possible at that time. Indeed, when Tziporah described to her father, the stranger who helped her at the well, she described him as an Egyptian.

From such a height of wealth and culture, Moshe willingly became a sheepherder for Yisro. He accepted the lowliest, most menial occupation that existed. This is an indication of his humility.

Because of the spiritual heights that shepherds like Moshe Rabbenu and Melech Dovid attained, we are today inclined to idealize the position of shepherd, and of course we have come to consider ourselve's Hashem's flock, that He tends with the concern and love of the shepherd. I think that obscures the humbleness of a shepherd's position.

Although humble, the shepherd's position is responsible, and a valuable resource is entrusted to his care. In the course of his work, he has opportunities to develop and exhibit courage and strength, compassion and wisdom.

Perhaps these opportunities arise from time to time even in our own humble work lives, even today.

In addition to opportunities for hisbodedus and reflection, as are described in the very interesting and thoughtful article that you posted here today.


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