‘The Lord Is My Shepherd,’ but I’m not just a sheep

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil,
For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

These words are familiar to anyone who has ever attended church, synagogue, or a funeral. Once upon a time, they used to be recited in public schools as part of morning devotionals. The 23rd psalm is undoubtedly one of the most famous passages in all biblical literature, and surely the best known and most cherished of all 150 psalms.

Tradition teaches that, like many other biblical psalms, it was composed by King David, when he was a young shepherd tending to his father’s flocks (NB: Cary Grant gives a touching “backstory” of this psalm in the film The Bishop’s Wife). As a source of comfort, it is often recited over the sick, over the dying, and at funeral. For millennia, the psalm has resonated with people because it evokes a sense of hope and calm, borne out of an abiding trust in Divine Providence. Indeed, this is the reason it is also recited in many Jewish homes around the Sabbath table.

The calm and trust these beloved words evoke are based on the metaphor of us human beings as sheep: just as sheep implicitly trust their shepherd and depend on him for their daily sustenance, so we human beings implicitly trust G-d and ultimately depend on Him for our daily sustenance.

However, shepherds rarely do their shepherding all by themselves. They often have dogs to assist them in protecting the sheep from predators and to keep them from straying. Indeed, the canine world is populated with various breeds of “shepherds” which have been bred over centuries specifically to guard and protect.

With this in mind, it occurs to me as a rabbi, a committed Jew and a concerned citizen who is committed to increasing my knowledge and honing my skills in order to effectively and responsibly protect myself and others in an emergency–that these age-old verses of the 23rd Psalm especially resonate with those of us “sheep” who also aspire to also serve as “sheepdogs.”

Why would we want to aspire to this service? We do so because of the significant and increasing threats from various predators to our sheep population. We do so because the social boundaries and “fences” that heretofore keep the predators at bay are broken and no longer diligently maintained. Many of us do so for religious reasons: cognizant of these dangers to the sheep, we believe the Shepherd needs us.

And as a shepherd has his rod, his staff, and his dogs to protect the sheep, so the sheepdogs have and rely on their own tools and skills. As sheepdogs who believe we have been called to sacred service by our Shepherd, we pledge to use our own tools and talents responsibly as we diligently carry out the task we have accepted.

Such a commitment is what drives this promise poignantly expressed by an anonymous fellow “sheepdog”:

I stand behind you in line at the store with a smile on my face…and a gun under my shirt and you are none the wiser, yet you are safer for having me next to you. I won’t shoot you. My gun won’t pull its own trigger. It is securely holstered with the trigger covered. It can’t just go off. However, rest assured that if a lunatic walks into the grocery store and pulls out a rifle, I will draw my pistol and protect myself and my family and therefore protect you and your family. I may get shot before I can pull the trigger…but, I won’t die in a helpless blubbering heap on the floor begging for my life or my child’s life. No, if I die it will be in a pile of spent shell casings. I won’t be that victim. I choose not to be. As for you, I don’t ask you to carry a gun. If you are not comfortable, then please don’t. But I would like to keep my right to choose to not be a helpless victim. There is evil in the world and if evil has a gun, I want one too…to protect not only myself but you as well.

Our prayer should be: in a time when predators seem to be prevailing, may the ultimate Shepherd guide and inspire more sheep to become loyal and capable sheepdogs.

DEDICATED TO ELISJHA DICKEN, faithful “sheepdog.”

About the Author
Cary Kozberg is a rabbi who has served in congregations, Hillel, and health care chaplaincy. He is currently rabbi of Temple Sholom in Springfield, Ohio
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