Many years ago, a young shepherd dreamed that he was a sheep being carried off in the mouth of a predator. When he woke up in the morning, he realized for the first time in his life that he was going to die.
Panicking, he began to negotiate with himself and the bestial, beautiful world around him:
“My weapons are too small and I’m alone and outnumbered. I’ll arm myself with armor and an army.”
Proud of his cleverness, he assembled an army, donned heavy armor, and returned to his flock. Then, a lion appeared, ravenous for a tasty dinner. Convinced of his invincibility, the shepherd began to step in front of the beast. He had barely moved forward in his unwieldy armor when the lion knocked him over, snatched a ewe in its teeth, and chased off the terrified soldiers.
Our young hero again negotiated with himself and the bestial, beautiful world around him:
“Weapons and soldiers won’t do the trick. I’ll build myself a mighty fortress.” Proud of his cleverness, he built a mighty fortress in the trees, and convinced of his invincibility, he closed its door, refusing to tend anymore to flocks, friends, or family. Yet that night, a fierce summer storm left the fortress a shambles. Having left behind so many for so long, he had no one upon whom he could call for help.
Once again, he negotiated with himself and the bestial, beautiful world around him.
“Mighty fortresses also won’t do the trick. I’ll dash down the path through that far-off valley between those high cliffs, out to the other side which I can reach before nightfall.”
Proud of his cleverness, he began to sprint through the valley. Convinced of his invincibility, he refused to stop even to take a breath. Soon enough, as he went deeper down the path, he dropped, exhausted, sick and depressed. Looking up, he wondered where all the sunlight had gone?
Certainly, when he began his run, it had been high noon, and now all around him it was growing dark. “Of course,” he whispered, “This valley is surrounded by high cliffs that have blocked out the sun’s light. My dream was right: I’m going to die and there is nothing that I can do about it. I’m no shepherd, I’m just a pathetic sheep.”
Laying on the earth as the shadows grew longer around him, he fell asleep. He dreamed again that he was a sheep, only this time, from somewhere, he heard the silence call to him: “This world is bestial, and it’s beautiful as well. You aren’t invincible and your death is inevitable, but it isn’t imminent. Stand up and live your life. And don’t be afraid, for I’m with you.” Awakening, he stood up and began his return home. The sheep had found his shepherd.
The young man in my story was King David, a shepherd who rose to become the greatest of all ancient Israelite kings. In his legendary 23rd psalm, David wrote about his relationship with God as one of sheep and Shepherd:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
In the psalm, David described his journey –and by extension all life journeys - in shadowy terms of impending mortality:
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I fear no harm for You are with me.”
Imagine David looking up and around at the darkened path behind and before him. Nothing would provide him with respite from mortality. He must have felt what we all feel in moments of deep crisis, when our illusions of total self-sufficiency are stripped away, and we feel as vulnerable as sheep.
From his new dream, David understood that every step we take in life -whether through vitality or viruses – is a walk through the valley of the shadow of death, as we grow older. Yet if we’re wise, we recognize that we need fear no evil, not because God will magically save us from death and suffering, but because God the Shepherd is guiding us. We aren’t alone.
What do these statements of faith say to those of us who don’t believe in God or for whom God is irrelevant? I suggest that just because God isn’t your Shepherd, doesn’t mean you don’t have one. Especially in these frightening times of social distancing, isolation, and pandemic, we are, we can be, and we must be each other’s shepherds. Strangely enough, now is the opportunity for us to reach out to the people we rarely encounter, to meet the neighbors we barely know, and to check in with the people from whom we sorely need to hear. This is what God the Shepherd, in whom we may or may not believe, desperately needs us to do.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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