The sidra is fast-moving and dramatic. But it has quiet moments too. One of the simplest is the description of Moses’ occupation: “Now Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro” (Ex. 3:1).
Like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses is a shepherd, as is David. It is characteristic for Biblical figures to tend sheep.
Other nations made soldiers and builders of monuments into their heroes; for Judaism, it was shepherds who were highly esteemed. Indeed God Himself is the supreme Shepherd: “The Lord is my Shepherd: I shall not want”, says the Psalm (Psalm 23:1).
The shepherd analogy provides the key to the Jewish concept of leadership. As sheep and shepherd develop bonds of affection and affinity, so must people and leader feel attached to and bound up with each other.
As a shepherd takes risks to protect his flock, so must the leader show courage and stand up for his people.
As a shepherd must know where to take his animals for food and water, so must the leader know his and his people’s destination.
No wonder the Midrash says that when Moses showed such tenderness and concern for a little sheep that had wandered off in search of water, God said, “Moses, since this is how you shepherd your flock, you are worthy to shepherd Israel!”
But shepherding has its lonely moments. Away from other humans, often far from habitation, spending nights under the starry sky, communing with the majesty and the wildness of nature, the shepherd has no alternative but to think.
Some who were not shepherds consciously chose to emulate the shepherd and go off by themselves when they needed to escape the hectic pace and relentless pressure of public life. Bil’am and Elijah went off to be alone, as in later Jewish history did the Baal Shem Tov.
This points to another feature of the good leader. The leader needs time off, and time out. There has to be time to think, far from the madding crowd. Going off by yourself keeps you sane. But you need not go far from human habitation, though hiking on the windswept hills does blow the cobwebs out of your mind.
A quiet moment with your books, a moment of meditation in an isolated corner of the synagogue: you have to know what works best for you. And if the public do not understand that you cannot always be at their beck and call, in the end it is they who will be the losers.