Any avid reader of the Bible or student of early Jewish history will know that tending sheep was the choice profession of many of our nation’s progenitors.

The list includes such biblical greats as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Rachel. King David, too, herded goats and sheep.

In fact, as one midrash has it, what endeared Moses to G‑d as the prototypical Jewish leader was his tender way with animals.

Interestingly, in the first human conflict recorded in the Bible—between the brothers Cain and Abel—G‑d prefers the gift of the shepherd to that of the farmer.

In a similar vein, the mystics identify, as the root of the sibling rivalry that tore Jacob’s family asunder, Joseph’s deviation from the family tradition of sheepherding.

What endeared Moses to G‑d was his tender way with animals

[Before medicine and law, it appears, the honorable Jewish profession was animal herding. One could just imagine ancient parents proudly introducing their children as “my son, the shepherd” . . .]

Joseph was the black sheep in the family, as it were, choosing agriculture and commerce as a profession.

So integral was sheepherding to the identity of Jacob’s children that when they were introduced to Pharaoh—the king of a nation which deified sheep and abhorred those who handled their god—they did not hide the fact that they supervised sheep for a living. To his question (Genesis 47:3), “What is your occupation?” they replied, “Your servants are shepherds, both we and our forefathers.”

Hardly the best way to make a good impression.

What is it about sheepherding, one wonders, that made it a favored pastime and the ultimate career choice of our saintly ancestors?

People of the Land

While it’s true that for the better part of our history we have been a people in exile, it’s also true that for the entirety of our history we were a people who sought to change that status, directing our prayers as often as three times daily, and our dreams more often than that, to the homeland promised us by G‑d.

Judaism’s very first journey begins with the quest for a land, and the very first divine revelation to the very first Jew (Genesis 12:7) makes central the promise of that land.

In fact, much of four out of the five books of Moses tells the unfinished story of a people on a tumultuous journey to their promised land. And the touching scene we are left with, as we close the last of the five books, features a broken Moses on a mountaintop, hungrily overlooking the land of his dreams. Sadly, only his yearning gaze would make its way across the border into the holy land.

Judaism’s very first journey begins with the quest for a land

The message of the Torah, then, is clear: We are not only the people of a book, but also the people of a land!

This point is strongly reinforced by the curious fact that a large number of the 613 mitzvot apply only in one particular region of the world. Think about it: Shouldn’t commands of the Torah such as leaving the corners of one’s field to the poor apply wherever one happens to live?

But perhaps the geographical restrictions of these mitzvot teach us that ultimate Jewish fulfillment, from the Torah’s point of view, can be realized only when our people find themselves settled in their land.

Planting Roots

Perhaps this can explain the early Jewish fixation with herding sheep as opposed to working land. Sheepherding is a vocation that involves transportable beings, not fixed and stationary land. Thus, the shepherd retains a sense of transience and impermanence that farmers do not, due to their commitment to the land they nurture. The farmer’s fate is linked to a permanent patch of earth; that’s where his energy and destiny is invested.

Sheepherding for our forefathers and mothers, then, was not just a matter of practice but of principle, motivated by the fear of becoming tied to, and emotionally involved, with a land not their own.

Determined not to lose sight of the essential Jewish dream of a homeland, Jews throughout the ages have similarly always maintained a transitory sense of non-arrival—unfortunately, all too often, with the unsolicited help of hostile host nations—ever-conscious of the fact that they were still on a journey.

In our day and age this message is especially relevant, as we live in an unprecedented era of liberty and wealth, conditions which naturally lead to complacency and a sense of arrival.

Today, more than ever, we need to nurture the sense of yearning, imparted to us by our ancestors, for the time when the journey commenced by Abraham and Sarah “to the land that I will show you” will finally be realized.