Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the Faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Shemoth

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF).
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Parashat Shemot 5758-1998

On Leaders and Shepherds

Michael Avi’oz

Department of Bible

This week’s reading mentions that Moses tended Jethro’s flock in the wilderness (Ex. 3:1). The shepherd motif re- appears when Moses produces water out of a rock to quench the thirst of the Israelites (Num. 20:1-14, esp. the phrase, vehishkita et ha-eda [20:8] “provide drink for the congregation”), and again when Joshua is appointed leader, as we read in Numbers 27:17: “so that the Lord’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”

In later generations, Moses was explicitly thought of as a shepherd, as in Isaiah 63:11, "Where is He that brought them up out of the sea, with the shepherds of His flock?" and Psalms 77:21: “You led Your people like a flock in the care of Moses and Aaron.”

The shepherd motif continues after Moses, appearing in other biblical stories of kings and prophets. We are told that “Saul was just coming from the field driving the cattle” (I Sam. 11:5ff), and David started out as a shepherd, as we read in I Samuel 16:19 and 17:15. Indeed, in II Samuel 7:8 the Lord says to David, “I took you from the pasture, from following the flock.” Elisha plowed with twelve yoke of oxen before being appointed Elijah’s successor (I Kings 19:19-21), and Amos said, “the Lord took me away from behind the flock” (Am. 7:15).

Exodus Rabbah 2.2 (Shinan ed., pp. 105-106) explains that through shepherding the flock the Lord establishes whether a person is worthy to be chosen for a special task in the life of the people:

“The Lord seeks out the righteous man” (Ps. 11:5). How so? In shepherding the flock. He tested David with the sheep, and found him a good shepherd, as it is said, (“He chose David, His servant,) and took him from the sheepfolds” (ibid., 78:70). David used to hold back the older sheep, and take out the youngest ones first to graze so that they would have the tender grass; then he would take the little ones out to graze next so that they could graze on the medium grass, and after them he would take out the bigger ones to eat the grass of the field (another version: hard grass). The Holy One, blessed be He, said: A person who knows to tend the flock, caring for each according to his abilities, shall come and be the shepherd of my people. That is the meaning of Psalms 78:71: “He brought him from minding the nursing ewes to tend His people Jacob, Israel His inheritance."

This legend shows how dedicated and devoted Moses was to his task, traits that characterized him also as leader of the Israelites in Egypt and in the wilderness.

The significance of the shepherd motif among the leaders of the Israel is discussed by Don Isaac Abarbanel in his commentary on Amos 7:15:

Israel’s shepherds and leaders were all people who tended the flock, as we see from the Patriarchs, Moses, and David; this is to show that the art of shepherding is similar to leading a people.

The image of leader as shepherd also appears in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These prophets used the shepherd motif to describe leaders who did not perform their duty properly. Jeremiah accuses the kings of Judah of causing dispersal of the people (compared to sheep), and compares G-d to a shepherd who will gather the dispersed people together and provide them faithful shepherds (Jer. 23:1-4). Likewise, Ezekiel speaks of the shepherds of Israel who ignored the people’s suffering, abandoning them and causing them to be “scattered for want of anyone to tend them” (Ezek. 34:5). The prophet promises that in the future G-d will tend the people “in good grazing land” (v. 14), i.e., will gather Israel in from exile.

A particularly strong analogy can be found between two shepherds: Moses and David. The analogy begins in Chronicles. Both Moses and David are referred to as “the man of G-d” (Deut. 33:1; Neh. 12:24, 36; II Chron. 8:14); both Moses and David led the people for forty years (Sam. 7:7; Deut. 31:2; 34:7; I Kings 2:11); David’s preparations for building the Temple call to mind Moses’ preparations for erecting the Tabernacle (cf. Ex. 35:4-29 and I Chron. 28:11ff).

The parallels between Moses and David are also brought out in legends of the Sages, as we see in Midrash Tehillim 1.2 (Buber ed., p. 3):

The greatest prophet was Moses ... the greatest king, David. One finds that whatever Moses did, David did as well. Moses took the Israelites out of Egypt, and David took Israel out of the bondage of exiles. Moses waged war on Sihon and Og, and David waged war on all those around him... Moses ruled[1] over Israel and Judah, ... and David ruled over Israel and Judah. Moses made the sea part for Israel, and David parted the rivers for Israel ... Moses gave Israel the Five Books of the Torah, and David gave Israel five books of Psalms.

The homilist’s point here is to elevate David to the level of Moses. The homily is based on the fact that both of them started out as shepherds and continued as faithful guardians of the flock, and also on the analogy between them that is drawn in Chronicles. This comparison opens the way for the homilist to search Scripture, in order to show further similarities between them.

[1] Such legends may have been the source for Philo of Alexandria saying that Moses was a king, selected by G-d for his role by virtue of his character and way of life. It is interesting that Philo makes no mention of the Davidic dynasty. The reason is apparently that Philo viewed Moses as the archetypical ruler over Israel, whose main role has to do with adjudication. Cf. S. Abramsky, Malkhut Shaul u-Malkhut David, Jerusalem 1937, p. 14. In contrast, see ibid., pp. 25-26, note 35, which cites legends of the Sages that indicate that Moses was not appointed to be a king. For a comprehensive discussion of the figure of Moses in biblical literature, see W. A. Meeks, The Prophet-King, Leiden 1967.

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