Life Lessons from a Shepherd from Brooklyn
First-hand account by Moshe Schneider
If you would have asked me what a shepherd is, I probably would have said someone who sits on a nice rock and plays some nice music on his flute while the sheep walk around - and I certainly never would have imagined myself as one.
How I Became a Shepherd
Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I had about as much knowledge about shepherding as I did about being an astronaut (aka none). If you would have asked me what a shepherd is, I probably would have said someone who sits on a nice rock and plays some nice music on his flute while the sheep walk around.
I certainly never would have imagined myself as one.
But, many years later, I found myself thrust into the life of a shepherd in the timeless hills of the Shomron. More than learning about sheep, I learned about myself, the land, and the lost art of connecting to nature and connecting to the land through animals - and it is absolutely inspiring and amazing.
Around seven years ago, shortly after my wife and I moved to Dotan Farm with our growing family, David Botzer offered me a job to manage the sheep farm he founded.
In ancient biblical times, the reason people had a flock of sheep was to own land. There are a few ways to own land; you can build a city on it, plant a huge field, which requires a lot of work, upkeep, time, energy, and water, or you can walk around with a small flock of sheep and mark your territory. To this day it’s one of the ways of marking land. The best part is that you're mobile and all you need is a small flock of sheep and a good pair of legs.
The flock that David offered me to be the shepherd of consisted of about 250 female sheep and 10 rams.
I’ll never forget the first time I took the sheep out to pasture. I still knew nothing about shepherding, but I knew that it’s what our forefathers did thousands of years ago. Emek Dotan (Dotan Valley), is mentioned in the Torah (bible) when Yaakov (Jacob) sent Yosef (Joseph) to look for his brothers. Yosef found his brothers looking after their flocks in Dotan Valley.
The first morning, I walked down the road with 250 sheep behind me, tears streaming down my face imagining my forefathers walking this same road with their flock. I did that walk every single day for 2 years. I stood outside tending to the sheep for six hours every day, regardless of whether it was pouring rain, or the hot sun was beating on my back.
It took a while to learn the tricks of the trade and it definitely wasn't as picturesque as I imagined with a daisy stuck in my hair playing on my flute. It was more like me spending hours chasing sheep in different directions. Sheep are followers, so if one sheep turns left, and another turns right, some will follow each one and it’s up to me to get them all back together.
Lessons from my sheep
It’s not by chance that all of the great biblical Jewish leaders were shepherds first, being a shepherd has taught me deep life lessons.
There’s a chapter in psalms that says, “God is our shepherd, I shall not lack,” but how many times do I stay connected to that? The sheep were so confident many times that they knew where the best grass was, but as their shepherd, I had a broader perspective than them and knew the right place to take them. Sometimes it was a fight to take them to the place where I knew they would be able to eat better. What I took from this is that as long as we believe in the shepherd (God), we are good to go.
Without delving into the actual shepherding, the mere fact of being surrounded by nature, and animals who are really gentle, forced me to be real with myself and to take life in from a very special perspective. Sometimes I felt like the sheep were shepherding me and all I could do was laugh at how helpless I was in those moments to get them to follow me. Although it was physically demanding, there were also countless hours of sitting on the rock, meditating, and being surrounded by our beautiful living land with a flock of sheep. It was a tremendous gift I received.
It also gave me a greater perspective of how everything is intertwined: the sheep both eat and fertilize the grass and we take care of the sheep and the sheep provide us with milk and meat. There is such a delicate giving and receiving system with nature and it’s so important to appreciate our role and everything else's role, and have mutual respect and love.
Where Dotan and Tel Aviv Meet
Shortly after starting my shepherding career, I also started college in Tel Aviv. In order to take care of the sheep and go to college, I had to wake up at 5 am, spend six hours with the sheep, then catch the bus to get to Tel Aviv.
I would get home at 12:30 at night and then have to get right back up at the crack of dawn to take the sheep out and do it all again. I did this four days a week for two years and the stark contrast of the two experiences was amazing. I spent my mornings in the field; praying, singing, and running after the sheep. A few hours later, I would get on a packed train with people who were so involved in the rush of their lives and work and then sit in a classroom.
One time my worlds collided when I was in a big rush to get to school. I ran home after making sure the whole flock was accounted for, quickly changed my clothes, grabbed my backpack, and ran out the door. It was a hot summer day and when I got on the usually packed train I realized I hadn’t changed my shoes. When you’re out in the field you step on a lot of sheep poop, so the smell was pungent. I was very amused watching everyone slowly picking up their feet to check the bottom of their shoes to see if they had stepped into something.
It’s amazing how quickly we get used to new situations. A year into shepherding we had a few guests for Shabbat. Their arrival perfectly coincided with the flock coming back from the pasture. These guys were coming from New York and had never seen a sheep in their life. Suddenly they see 250 sheep walking up the road and they got scared. They totally freaked out, started running away, and asking frantically, “Do they bite? Are they dangerous? Can they attack?”
At first, I laughed at them, brushing off their concerns with an, “Of course not, they don't bite, they are sweet gentle sheep!” But then I realized that a year ago, I also had no idea what a sheep was.
Another surprise twist of being a shepherd is that I also had to birth the sheep. Sheep can give birth to between 1 - 3 babies at a time and so suddenly I became a sheep doula. I delivered hundreds of baby lambs - that itself was an incredible experience.
To sum it up, being a shepherd is like a forced connection to nature and to love, because when you're out in the field, you're not hooked on your cell phone or surrounded by constant stimulants, which often prevent you from accessing your inner self. Being out there you’re really forced to connect with yourself and everything around you. It’s extremely empowering to figure out a lot about yourself through the eyes of a shepherd.
I haven’t been shepherding for almost four years now, but every so often I walk back into the sheep pen, breath a little bit, and take myself back to those timeless experiences that were a tremendous gift.
So yeah, from Brooklyn, NY to a flock of sheep in Dotan.
It’s been quite a journey.