Tag Archives: shepherd

Why Are We Needed?

i-need-youThe sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneerson, recounted the following story some 64 years ago:

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad rebbe, had a disciple who was also a great philanthropist. Two causes that were particularly dear to him were supporting the Jewish community in the Land of Israel and ransoming captives.

This wealthy chassid had already married off his children and begun pledging dowries for his less-affluent relatives, when the wheel of fortune turned, and his finances suffered.

He was forced to borrow money, and at the end he was left penniless. Overwhelmed and pursued by creditors, he did what any chassid would do: he traveled to his rebbe and unburdened his heavy heart.

After listening intently to his complaints, Rabbi Schneur Zalman addressed him: “You speak about what you need, but say nothing of what you are needed for!”

In this week’s Torah portion, the first one of the book of Exodus, we read about the beginning of the harsh Egyptian exile. But with the disease comes the cure: in the same portion we read about the birth of Moses, the man who was to lead the Jewish people out of their bondage.

One of the first things we hear about Moses is that how he helps another person. Emerging from a sheltered existence as a member of Pharaoh’s household, he sees an Israelite slave being cruelly beaten by an Egyptian, and rescues him.

There are times in our lives when it may be challenging to think about anyone other than ourselves, but the message of Rabbi Schneur Zalman to the anonymous chassid rings true: You speak about what you need, but say nothing of what you are needed for!

Often, the best response to adversity is to break out of our comfort zones and extend a helping hand to another person with love and gratitude for all the good that we have.

-Rabbi Shaul Wertheimer
“What Are You Needed For?”
Commentary on Torah Portion Shemot

I’ve recently lamented about the relative significance of our lives to God and His purposes, but I suppose the above-commentary, part of which I’ve read before, provides us with something of an answer. Still, it’s difficult when we have needs, to set those aside and to consider instead what we are needed for. When it is our heart that hurts and our eyes that grow dim, how can we view ourselves as the pilgrim instead of the exile? Yet we see that in God causing Moses to rise up among his Jewish brothers, that He created Moses to become both.

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he found two Hebrews fighting; so he said to the offender, “Why do you strike your fellow?” He retorted, “Who made you chief and ruler over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses was frightened, and thought: Then the matter is known! When Pharaoh learned of the matter, he sought to kill Moses; but Moses fled from Pharaoh. He arrived in the land of Midian, and sat down beside a well.

Exodus 2:11-15 (JPS Tanakh)

I can only imagine that after having grown up in Pharoah’s court, becoming a shepherd in Midian was something of a let down for Moses, at least at first. But in my imagination, I think of Moses finally marrying, raising sons, and eventually coming to terms and to a peace with the simple life, tending to his flock in the shadow of the mountain of God.

But then, God had other plans for Moses.

“You speak about what you need, but say nothing of what you are needed for!”

-Rabbi Schneur Zalman

But Moses said to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” And the Lord said to him, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” But he said, “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent.” The Lord became angry with Moses, and He said, “There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily. Even now he is setting out to meet you, and he will be happy to see you. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth — I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do — and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him, And take with you this rod, with which you shall perform the signs.”

Exodus 4:10-17 (JPS Tanakh)

Most of us have never been a prince in Egypt or even a wealthy philanthropist and chassid, but I’m sure many of you reading this have been poor (or are poor) and in need and have been focused more on your own desperation than the plight of the world around you. It’s only natural that when we are confronted with our own pain, we direct all our attention to it and ask for help. It is only natural that, when presented with a task or a mission that seems well beyond our capacities, we should try to turn it down or ask that it be assigned to someone else.

But sometimes God asks the most unlikely people to do the most unusual things.

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

Acts 9:19-22 (ESV)

micah6-8And what does God ask us to do?

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8 (ESV)

For kindness is Yours, O God, when You compensate each person according to his actions.

Psalms 62:13

In our productivity-oriented society, we tend to place value on the product rather than on the process. Success is praised and failure is condemned, and we have little interest in the circumstances under which others function.

This attitude might be justified in the marketplace, since commerce lives by the bottom line. Still, our preoccupation with commerce should not influence us to think that people’s successes and failures should be the yardsticks for how we value them.

God does not judge according to outcome. God knows that people have control only over what they do, not over the results. Virtue or sin are determined not by what materializes, but by what we do and why.

Since the Torah calls on us to “walk in His ways,” to emulate God as best we can, we would do well to have a value system so that we judge people by their actions, not their results. This system should be applied to ourselves as well. We must try to do our utmost according to the best ethical and moral guidance we can obtain. When we do so, our behavior is commendable, regardless of the results of our actions.”

Today I shall…

try to be considerate of others and of myself as well, and realize that none of us is in control of the outcome of our actions, only of their nature.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tevet 19”

You and I speak of our needs to God and He desires this. But He also desires that ask Him what we are needed for. The answer is the reason we are all alive today.

A Line as the Unending Horizon

horizon-at-nightWe live as exiles. We’re called to be pilgrims.

As he sent Adam and Eve into exile, God promised redemption and offered protection. But toil, pain, relational struggle, sin and death went with them as well, marking them and their descendants as refugees from Eden. Consider the ways in which your everyday life is not at all like the perfect paradise of that Garden. Take a few moments to list the markers of your existence as an exile by naming the broken things in your world, the brokenness in you.

The sorrow or anger that you may have felt as you named those broken things? The sinking recognition that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be?

Those are marks of the exile experience, but they also contain a clue, a compass of sorts. Deep in our DNA, beyond rational thought or extravagant imagination, is a longing for home. Adam and Eve had it or it wouldn’t have taken sword and cherubim to protect Eden. We have it, too. This longing contains our invitation into the new identity and life direction God longs to give to his beloved exiles. This longing is designed to transform us into pilgrims.

Which word resonates with your life experience more: exile or pilgrim? Why do you say so?

-Michelle Van Loon
“Pilgrim’s Road Trip #1”

Since becoming aware of the reality of God, my existence has been one of searching, traveling on a journey, walking along a path, striving toward a destination…God doesn’t promise that we’ll always be well or even safe, just that regardless of what happens to us, he will be with us, as he was with Jacob when Jacob and his family descended into Egypt. Sometimes we’re slaves. And we wait until God lifts us up again. Even if he doesn’t, blessed be the name of the Lord. I’m still walking as a pilgrim on the trail.

my (edited) response

I’ve admitted before feeling abandoned by God, an exile in the desert, but I suppose in reality, I was the one pushing God away and not the opposite. Frankly, encountering God is scary and there have been long periods of time when I thought I’d rather not hear from Him. Ultimately though, once a person has become aware of God’s presence, avoiding such encounters is impossible. God has ways to get our…my attention and He calls us…me out of exile and into relationship.

O God before Whom my forefathers Abraham and Isaac walked – God Who shepherds me from my inception until this day…

Genesis 48:15 (Stone Edition Chumash)

Although Jacob suffered greatly over his lifetime, and before Pharaoh, King of Egypt, Jacob said of his life that “few and bad have been the days of the years of my life,” (Genesis 47:9) yet he calls God his “shepherd” who has guided the steps of Jacob “from my inception until this day.”

We Christians have a shepherd, the same shepherd actually, though we access God through the “good shepherd” who once walked among men and who will walk among us again.

I am the good shepherd, and I know what is mine, and I am known to those who are mine, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father and I give my life for the flock. I have other flocks that are not from this sheepfold, and I must lead them as well. They will hear my voice, and there will be one herd and one shepherd.

John 10:14-16 (DHE Gospels)

While Jesus admittedly came for the “lost sheep of Israel,” (Matthew 15:24), the “good shepherd” verses are widely believed to express his desire to also bring in the people from the nations, that is non-Jews, into his “flock,” though this wouldn’t begin to occur until some years after his death, resurrection, and ascension. While Israel has many covenants with God that establish their relationship with Him, it is only through Israel’s first-born son, the Moshiach, the “Notzri,” Jesus that we who are from outside Israel have been brought near to Israel and to God.

I don’t mean to imply that there are two roads to salvation, one for the Jewish pilgrim and one for the Gentile, and in fact, as he was dying, Jacob explained everything to his sons about the centrality of Messiah, and because of the Torah, we hear his voice, too.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from among his descendants until Shiloh arrives and his will be an assemblage of nations.

Genesis 49:10 (Stone Edition Chumash)

Perhaps a slightly different translation will be more illuminating.

The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the lawgiver from his descendants, until the Moshiach comes . . .

king-davidThese words are widely believed in Judaism to be the primary source indicating that the Messiah will come to restore justice and that even the nations will pay homage to him with gifts. As the midrash states:

…the word Shiloh is a composite of the words “a gift to him” (in Hebrew), a reference to the King Messiah, to whom all nations will bring gifts. This verse is the primary Torah source for the belief that the Messiah will come, and the rabbis always referred to it in the Middle Ages…

…the sense of the verse is that once Messiah begins to reign, Judah’s blessing of kingship will become fully realized and go to an even higher plateau (Sh’lah). At that time, all the nations will assemble to acknowledge his greatness and pay homage to him.

This is quite similar to how Christians believe that Jesus will return and establish his Sovereign rule over all the earth. Remarkable how none of this paints a portrait of the faithful in exile but rather a people who are following a King.

They led the boat to the land, and they left everything and followed him.

Luke 5:11 (DHE Gospels)

Our existence is one of searching, traveling on a journey, walking along a path, striving toward a destination. Although most of us don’t literally leave everything behind, home, family, job, to follow him, when we commit our lives to pursuing holiness by walking in the footsteps our Master left in the dust, who we are and how we live are never the same again. Our every sin is illuminated by a stark, white light, our imperfections are covered in dripping scarlet, we are always aware of our faults and our shortcomings, and maybe it is out of that awareness we sometimes feel exiled from God’s presence, for how can the pure and the impure co-exist?

But through repentance, we are offered a way out of the darkness, through teshuvah we are once more made clean. God offers us a path that we may journey from the mundane to the magnificent. Each day we have the opportunity to travel with a companion. He is only far off when we push him away, and he draws near the instant we call with sincerity.

…but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Proverbs 18:24 (ESV)

…the LORD is near to all who call upon Him; to all who call upon Him with sincerity.

Psalm 145:18 (from the siddur; weekday morning and afternoon prayers)

Although many times when we desire God the most, we don’t get a sense of His presence. But putting the limitations of our perceptions aside, God is as near to us or as far from us as we want Him to be. If what we want most in our lives is God, He is there. If we have other more pressing priorities, God will stand aside. If we are in exile, it is one of our own making. God has already made the path for us to be with Him. All we have to do is decide to walk on it.

Our Teacher Moshe the Shepherd

The Baal Shem Tov was once shown from heaven that a certain simple man called Moshe the Shepherd served G‑d, blessed be He, better than he did. He longed to meet this shepherd, so he ordered his horses harnessed to his coach, and traveled, with a few of his disciples, to the place where he was told the shepherd lived.

They stopped in a field at the foot of a hill, and saw, on the hillside above them, a shepherd who was blowing his horn to call his flock. After the sheep gathered to him, he led them to a nearby trough to water them. While they were drinking, he looked up to heaven and began to call out loudly, “Master of the world, You are so great! You created heaven and earth, and everything else! I’m a simple man; I’m ignorant and unlearned, and I don’t know how to serve You or praise You. I was orphaned as a child and raised among gentiles, so I never learned any Torah. But I can blow on my shepherd’s horn like a shofar, with all my strength, and call out, ‘The L-rd is G‑d!’” After blowing with all his might on the horn, he collapsed to the ground, without an ounce of energy, and lay there motionless until his strength returned.

Then he got up and said, “Master of the world, I’m just a simple shepherd; I don’t know any Torah, and I don’t know how to pray. What can I do for You? The only thing I know is to sing shepherds’ songs!” He then began to sing loudly and fervently with all his strength until, again, he fell to the earth, exhausted, without an ounce of energy.

-Yitzchak Buxbaum
“The Shepherd”
from his book, Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov
quoted from Chabad.org

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.Deuteronomy 6:5 (ESV)

Buxbaum goes on to describe the shepherd’s further efforts to love and please God, some which may sound almost ludicrous, such as standing on his head and waving his feet wildly in the air, but we can learn a lesson from this shepherd and this tale of the Baal Shem Tov.

In all likelihood, no such shepherd ever existed and God never showed the Baal Shem Tov how to find him, but that’s not the point. The point is to learn something about us and about God and about how we’re supposed to connect our lives to Him. That’s what Chassidic tales are all about.

In our tale, the shepherd, who God tells the Baal Shem Tov worships Him better than the venerated Chassidic sage, is a Jew who was raised among Gentiles and who has absolutely no grasp of Torah, Talmud, or even the most basic understanding of halachah. He has no formal education in any of the mitzvot and although the shepherd knows he is to honor, worship, and give glory to God, he doesn’t know the first thing about how a Jew is supposed accomplish this.

Interesting, isn’t it.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t study and learn and strive to comprehend what God expects of us, but the information seems to be secondary to the desire, the will, and the intent of the person in worship. Moshe the Shepherd knew nothing but in a sense, he knew everything. He knew to take care of his sheep just as shepherds such as Moshe the Prophet, David the King, and our “good shepherd” Jesus the Rabbi knew how to take care of their sheep, even to the point of laying down their lives.

Moshe the Shepherd called to his sheep by blowing his horn which he compared to a shofar, and since the sheep responded by going to him, it shows he had certainly earned their trust. He gathered his sheep and watered them, and while watering them, cried out to God, blew his horn for Him, sang shepherd’s songs for Him, acknowledged God’s might and glory in the loudest voice he could muster, and he did all this with such zeal and energy that he collapsed, exhausted upon the ground.

And after seeing Moshe the Shepherd do this over and over again to the point of total collapse, we reach the dramatic conclusion of our tale:

What more can I do to serve You?” After pausing to reflect, he said, “Yesterday, the nobleman who owns the flock made a feast for his servants, and when it ended, he gave each of us a silver coin. I’m giving that coin to You as a gift, O G‑d, because You created everything and You feed all Your creatures, including me, Moshe the little shepherd!” Saying this, he threw the coin upward.

At that moment, the Baal Shem Tov saw a hand reach out from heaven to receive the coin. He said to his disciples, “This shepherd has taught me how to fulfill the verse: ‘You shall love the L‑rd your G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.’”

What does God want from you? The answer is amazingly simple:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? –Micah 6:8 (ESV)

Without studying the Bible, Moshe the Shepherd knew what pleased God and he worshiped and pleased God with all his strength. How much more should we who study the Bible know and then do what pleases God. But do we try to please Him with all our might as did Moshe the Shepherd?

Torah is not about getting to the truth. When you are immersed in Torah, even while pondering the question, even while struggling to make sense of it all, you are at truth already.

Torah is about being truth.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Process”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson