The Torah portion, Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:1032:3),
is veritably glutted with sheep: Labans sheep and Jacobs
sheep; white sheep, dark sheep, spotted sheep, speckled sheep,
sheep with rings around their ankles. Jacob arrives in Charan,
and the first sight to greet him is that of several flocks
of sheep congregated around a sealed well; the second is his
future wife, Rachel (the name is Hebrew for sheep),
shepherding her fathers sheep. Soon Jacob is a shepherd
himself, caring for sheep, receiving his wages in sheep, breeding
sheep with special markings, dreaming of sheep, amassing a
fortune in sheep, and finally leading his flocks back to the
Holy Land where he will present his brother Esau with a huge
gift comprised largely of... sheep.
Between flocks, we also read of Jacobs marriages to
Leah and Rachel and the birth of eleven of his twelve sons,
progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. What are we to
learn from the fact that the nation of Israel was founded
in such sheepish surroundings?
The First Metaphor
I am my beloveds and my beloved is mine, he who
shepherds [me] among the roses.
The voice of this verse, explains the Midrash, is that of the community of Israel,
speaking of her relationship with G-d. He is my shepherd,
[as it is written,] Shepherd of Israel, listen;
and I am His sheep, [as it is written,] And you, My sheep, the sheep of My
The same Midrashic passage also describes our relationship
with G-d as that of a child to his father, a sister to her
brother, a bride to her groom, a vineyard to its watchman,
among others. Each of these metaphors expresses another facet
of the relationship: the inherent bond between G-d and Israel,
the love and affection, G-ds guardianship over us, our
being a source of joy to Him, etc. What does the sheep/shepherd
metaphor represent? If the point is that G-d provides for
us and protects us, or that we are subservient and devoted
to Him, these elements also exist in the father/child relationship.
What unique aspect of our relationship with G-d can be expressed
only by describing us as His sheep?
The sheeps dominant trait is its docility and obedience.
The child obeys his father, but does so out of an appreciation
of his fathers greatness; the sheep does not obey for
any reasonit is simply obedient by nature. It is this
element of our relationship with G-d that the sheep represents:
an unquestioning subservience which derives not from our understanding
of His greatness and our feelings toward Him (in which case
it would be defined by the limits of our understanding and
feelings), but from the recognition that I am His sheep.
The Jewish nation was founded amidst sheep because our self-negation
and unquestioning obedience to G-d is the foundation of our
Jewishness. Of course, we are not only G-ds sheepwe
are also His children, His bride, His sister and His vineyard.
By the same token, the Torah tells us that when Jacob left
Charan after twenty years of shepherding, his wealth consisted
not only of sheep: He had much sheep, maids and servants,
camels and donkeys.
We have just read that Laban paid him his wages in sheep,
and that his flocks multiplied exceedingly; but where did
his other possessions come from? Rashi explains that he
sold his sheep for high prices and bought all these.
Spiritually, too, Jacobs wealth did not
consist solely of docility and self-negation, but also included
feeling and understanding, fortitude and vigor.
But the source and basis of it all were his sheep.
Being a Jew means studying the divine wisdom (revealed to
us in His Torah), developing a passionate love and reverent
awe for G-d, and teaching His wisdom and implementing His
will in an oft-times hostile worldall of which require
the optimal application of our mental, emotional and assertive
powers. But the foundation of it allthe base from which
all these derive and upon which they are all predicatedis
our simple commitment to G-d, a commitment that transcends
reason and emotion.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Kislev 10, 5737 (December
. Midrash Rabbah on verse.
. Ezekiel 34:31 (see entire chapter).
. Indeed, in Jacobs message to Esau, where
he speaks of the wealth he had gained in Charan, he says,
I acquired an ox, a donkey, sheep, a servant and a
maidservant (Genesis 32:6). Unlike the previously-quoted
verse, where sheep heads the list, here it is
preceded by ox and donkey. At this
point, Jacob was unsure of Esaus intentions toward
him (in fact, Esau was marching against him with four hundred
men); so he wished to emphasize to Esau that while he is
meek and servile in his relationship with G-d, he does not
lack the vigor and fortitude to stand up against those who
wish to destroy him.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XV, pp. 252-258.