The portion of Vayeitzei relates at length how Yaakov, while sojourning with Lavan, was involved with sheep. He was both shepherd and sheep owner, for he received sheep as payment for some of his years of service.

Every detail in Torah serves as an eternal lesson for all Jews at all times and in all places. This is especially so with regard to the actions of the Patriarchs, since these serve as an antecedent to the spiritual service of their offspring.1

Surely this is so regarding the lengthy story of Yaakov’s involvement with sheep. What spiritual lesson is to be gleaned from sheep?

The Midrash2 speaks of the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people in the following manner: “He is unto me a father, and I am unto Him as a son; He is unto me a shepherd and I am unto Him as sheep.”

Obviously, the relationship between father and son goes far beyond the relationship between a shepherd and his flock. Once the Midrash states that Jews are like G‑d’s children, what additional bond is the Midrash hinting at when it states that G‑d loves the Jewish people as a shepherd loves his sheep?

Describing Jews as G‑d’s children implies that they are looked upon as a distinct entity.3 Although every Jewish soul is inseparably bound to G‑d4 — unlike a physical father-and-son relationship, which can be broken — the very fact that a Jew is called “son” implies that he is another entity — he is not the Father.

Therefore, while as “children” of God our existence and our love for our Heavenly Father is important to Him, we remain created beings; entirely different from the ineffable Presence that is G‑d. With regard to this essential state the verse states:5 “He has no son….”

This unbridgeable gulf is better described by likening the Jewish people’s relationship with G‑d to that between a shepherd and his sheep; there is no comparison at all.

Nevertheless, this latter relationship also serves as an illustration; there is a fondness between the Shepherd and His flock. But in this context, our belovedness stems from the intensity of our self-nullification rather than from our state of being.

This self-effacement is alluded to in the metaphor of sheep, for we observe that sheep possess a greater degree of self-effacement than do other animals.

The two descriptions of the Jewish people — sons and sheep — allude to two forms of spiritual service:

The level of “son” results from the service of Torah study, which involves an individual’s comprehension. Though increased Torah learning brings increased closeness to G‑d, it also brings increased awareness of the fundamental and unbridgeable distance between created and Creator.

The level of “sheep” is attained by purifying, refining and elevating the physical world. For the Hebrew word for sheep, tzon, is related to the word yetziah, or departure,6 referring to the “departure” from one’s intellectual self and the occupation of one’s body with worldly matters in order to transform the world into a dwelling fit for G‑d.

It is specifically this manner of service that evokes true self-nullification to G‑d, for in this form of service, the Jew serves not for his own benefit and spiritual elevation, but strictly for the sake of realizing the Divine goal of transforming this world into a dwelling place for G‑d.

Based on Likkutei Sichos Vol. XV, pp. 252-254.