Caring for Sheep and Shepherds

Caring for Sheep and Shepherds

Shabbat Vayiggash 5780, 5th January 2020

Joseph is at last reconciled with his brothers.  They return to Canaan and bring back Jacob and all their family and then they appear before Pharaoh.  When he asks them, ‘What is your occupation’, they say, ‘Your servants are shepherds, both we and our ancestors.’ And Pharaoh welcomes them warmly and tells them to settle in the land of Goshen which has pasture for their flocks.

It is many generations since most of the Jewish people were shepherds.  Yet there is something in our collective psyche of our shepherding past.   Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as well as their sons were all shepherds, nomadic people wandering to find pasture for their flocks.  Moses, too, was a shepherd, as was King David.  Our psalms and our liturgy are full of imagery of sheep and shepherds, from Psalm 23, ‘The Eternal One is my Shepherd’ to the Yom Kippur prayer, ‘Ki anu amecha’, which says ‘We are your flock and you are our shepherd.’  Somehow, that ancestral memory has stayed with us.  We may not have much knowledge of actual shepherding but there is something about the idea that we identify with.

It was all the more disturbing to hear Rabbi Arik Ascherman speak at Limmud about how Bedouin shepherds are being harassed in the Jordan Valley in Israel.  They have been shepherds there for generations - who knows, maybe going back to Abraham’s time. Rabbi Ascherman spoke of the inspiration he found in being with the shepherds in their work, of the beauty of watching flocks stream over the hills in the sunset.  The shepherds have developed a very special skill in shepherding sheep and goats.  They had even developed separate languages, different ways of speaking,  for communicating with sheep and with goats.  But their way of life has been increasingly threatened by settlers in the Jordan valley.  We saw film of the settlers on the hilltops, preparing to ride horses through the flocks of sheep.  This had disastrous effects, for even if the flocks remained intact, the sheep were made so anxious that they miscarry.  Their pasturing becomes unsustainable. 

For a time, the army agreed to protect the shepherds within certain areas.  But recently, a local settler persuaded the army to backtrack and the army now stands by whilst the flocks and the shepherds are threatened and disturbed and the shepherds are gradually forced to move on.

Such actions are contrary to so much that Judaism teaches.  First and foremost, we are told again and again to treat the ‘ger v’toshav’, the stranger and the sojourner, with respect and compassion ‘for you were strangers in the land of Israel.’  The Bedouins are toshavim, sojourners in the land.  They have every right, under both international and Jewish law, to live where they do in safety and security.  Then there is the distress the animals suffer.  Throughout our Torah, it is clear that animals must be treated kindly.  Even the ass of your enemy must be helped up if it is bearing a heavy load, and we must not turn away.  How much more so should we refrain from disturbing a flock of sheep or goats to the extent that they miscarry?

The treatment of Bedouins and their flocks in such a way can be viewed as a ‘hillul ha-Shem’, a desecration of the Divine name.  It brings our people and our religion, into disrepute.  To the Bedouins, and those who learn of what is happening to them, Judaism will seem a cruel religion.  How different this is from how it should be.

Those who protest are seen by some in Israel as traitors, assisting people who are sadly seen as the enemy even though they want nothing more than to continue their centuries old way of life.  But these activists are the very opposite. They are acting in the best interests of Israel and the Jewish people.  Their actions are ‘al kiddush hashem - for the sanctification of the Divine name.’ Left unaided, the Bedouin would see Jews only as oppressors.  Through the actions of Rabbi Ascherman’s organisation, Torat Tzedek and other organisations such as Ta’ayush and Rabbis for Human Rights they come to see that some Jews care.  Some Jews are prepared to face attack themselves in order to protect non-Jews who are being attacked.  And indeed Jews from these human rights organisations have been attacked.   Last October, 80-year old Rabbi Moshe Yehudai was beaten up and had his arm and ribs broken whilst protecting Palestinians during the olive harvest.  They are builders  and pursuers of peace, by their actions helping to prevent hatred between Bedouins and Palestinians and Israelis.

What can we do to help here, hundreds of miles away?  We can support organisations such as Torat Tzedek and Rabbis for Human Rights -there are information sheets about Torat Tzedek downstairs.  If we are fortunate enough to visit Israel, we can meet them and learn more about their work. And we can model what they do in our own country.  Here, too, strangers and sojourners are oppressed.  We have seen how many of the Windrush generation, who had lived here many years, lost their jobs and were sometimes expelled from what was their home country.  With our coming exit from  the EU we have to be alert to the possibility of others suffering like many of the Windrush generation did.  There are so many other instances of injustice in our country. We, like our Israeli brothers and sisters, have to be prepared to stand up and be counted.

Joseph and his brothers were strangers but they were made welcome in Egypt.  It is true that later they were enslaved, but the Pharaoh who knew Joseph extended his hand to the family.  They were shepherds and he found them land to graze.  May we learn from our history so that we may defend others who face oppression and may we be rodfei shalom, pursuers of peace in all that we do.

Rabbi Margaret Jacobi