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Our Ancestors Were Shepherds
A short reflection on Re’eh (Deut. 11:26-16:17)

We were shepherds. Every last one of us. 

Abraham was a shepherd. So was Isaac and Jacob and nearly all of Jacob’s sons. Even Moses who spent the first 40 years of his life as a prince of Egypt, spent the next 40 years of his life as a herder working for his father-in-law, Jethro. And, as we left Egypt, we brought our livestock with us because, you guessed it, we were primarily shepherds. 

We trekked through biblical history with our sheep and cattle and goats following close behind. The Torah is as much a history of shepherds as it is a history of Jews because Jews and shepherds were one and the same.

As Shepherds, we knew each animal who walked by our side. We saw them being born, often assisting in the birthing process. We watched them grow. We walked with them through deserts and fields, caring for them, talking to them, being present for them. When it came time to slaughter an animal, it was done knowing that the animal had a good life because we lived in parallel with them. Yet, this point seems to have been forgotten. 

Most of us are professionals in today’s world. We don’t walk the hills of Israel with our animals in tow. That’s left to the Bedouins in modern Israel.  As individuals living in modernity, we buy our meat in stores seldom considering how it connects us emotionally to our past and our responsibility to that which we consume. 

This week’s Torah portion, Reeh, goes into depth about animals that we can and cannot eat. It clearly lays out the law of “must chew its cud” and “must have split hooves” and then lists kosher and non-kosher animals. But it doesn’t talk about how we need to treat the animals while they walk by our sides.

Rabbis have given a variety of reasons for the laws of kashrut. In the 17th Century Slomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntzschitz wrote “Non-kosher foods remove the spirit of purity and holiness, and create a blockage in the intelligence, and cause cruelty.” Sadly all I can think about is the cruelty of a kashrut policy that focuses on how an animal is slaughtered more than how it lives its life. 

Our ancestors raised free range meat. They didn’t lock their livestock in cages and shoot them up with antibiotics. They lived with and cared for their animals. Often, the most obvious point of a story or a historical moment is somehow missed. But, we cannot and should not miss the point that our ancestors were shepherds, not industrialized ranchers. They knew their animals. They were kind to their animals. They knew that one day they would slaughter them but until they did, they took care of them and treated them humanely.

We should never forget that we once were and continue to be shepherds. Let us treat livestock using the example of our ancestors. 

  • God places both blessing and curse before the Israelites. They are taught that blessing will come through the observance of God’s laws. (11:26–32)
  • Moses’ third discourse includes laws about worship in a central place (12:1–28); injunctions against idolatry (12:29–13:19) and self-mutilation (14:1–2); dietary rules (14:3–21); and laws about tithes (14:22–25), debt remission (15:1–11), the release and treatment of Hebrew slaves (15:12–18), and firstlings (15:19–23).
  • Moses reviews the correct sacrifices to be offered during the Pilgrim Festivals—Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot. (16:1-17)


Sat, March 2 2024 22 Adar I 5784