Toldot: Shepherds and and Hunters

“I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” –J.R.R Tolkien, from his book in the Lord of the Rings Series, The Two Towers.
When I was growing up, I often heard a saying–primarily by friends of mine in law enforcement and the military– that there are three different types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The analogy continues with the idea that the sheep are usually unaware that there is a wolf around them, and so they hate the sheepdog because he reminds them of the existence of the wolf, but they are always grateful when the sheepdog arrives on the scene when the wolf comes around…
In the thirty-second chapter of Genesis, it’s written about the climax of Jacob and Esau meeting and having somewhat of a reconciliation, but then something interesting happens. When Esau invites Jacob to come with him, Jacob refuses and gives Esau the excuse that he has too many children and herds of sheep to go at Esau’s pace. While it would seem that Esau shows a bit of regret, he leaves his brother to go at their own pace. Why the separation between these two brothers who seem to be reconciled? (Keyword here is “seem.”)
In earlier chapters when reading about the two brothers inside of their mother’s womb, we read that Rebecca their mother is told that “Two nations are in your womb…” And as the two brothers grow up, we read of Esau becoming a hunter (The rabbis of the Talmud say that he was a “hunter of men,” a murderer), and Jacob becoming a scholarly dweller of tents. Later, as Jacob continues to mature, he learns to be a shepherd.
Thus we have two brothers/nations–of scholarly shepherds, and of cold and calculating hunters.
On the surface, when it comes to the nature of both shepherds and hunters, they could be pretty similar. Both had to have the ability for violence in their lives. Obviously, when we think of a shepherd with sheep, that idea of violence can be hard to depict. Often we think of a shepherd giving birth to a lamb with calm and gentle hands or calmly leading the sheep where they should go, passively and gently. And yet, when a wolf comes around, the shepherd MUST be violent. There have been times when I have read the 23rd Psalm, and when I come to the verse that says, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me,” I can’t help but smile and think of the shepherd’s zeal and readiness to beat to a bloody pulp any predator that comes near the flock in a raging fury. In this regard, the shepherd and the hunter, the sheepdog and the wolf, are similar in that have this raging violent dark side within them, this readiness to spill however much blood is necessary to maintain their agenda.
And yet, when it comes to the agendas themselves between hunter and shepherd, we see a vast difference–almost like night and day. The agenda of the hunter is purely predatorial. To prey on the weak, to take whatever advantage he can upon anyone and anything that he can. Think of a lion running after a herd of zebras–usually it’s the older zebras that get picked off and eaten. For the hunter like the nation of Esau, strength is the ultimate value. If you can’t survive, well, you can’t survive. The hunter still has many great qualities. Efficiency. Tact. Courage. Amazing survival instincts. Yet, what he lacks–and this is very important– is the ability to be compassionate to those who are weaker than he is. He lacks empathy, and he, therefore, lacks patience with anyone who cannot keep up with his pace and efficiency. In the eat or be eaten world of the hunter, there is no room for weakness.
The agenda of the shepherd, on the other hand, is extremely unique. The shepherd’s agenda is guarding those who are weaker than he is–including the goats who don’t like to be led. In order to do his job, the shepherd must have many of the qualities of the hunter, yet he also has what the hunter lacks as listed above–empathy for the weak, and thus patience for those who can’t keep up with the rest of the flock. Thus the shepherd is a confusing personality to the hunter. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but hands are the hands of Esau.”
In the meeting between Jacob and Esau, one of the things I imagine from Esau is seeing his brother, and sizing him up as he hugs him, like any good hunter will size up those he comes into contact with. He realizes that Jacob/Israel has become one tough dude. Perhaps Esau is even proud to see his younger brother turn into the fighter that he has become… And then suddenly, Esau is caught by surprise at his brother, the shepherd. Esau, who comes with his “rough riders” over a long distance–from the southeast Negev near the Red Sea to the Jabok brook that marks the division between the Moabite Mountains and Gilead mountain range to the north, “…saw the women and children. And he said, (Literally) ‘Who are these to you?’” Esau is confused. He sees his brother who has grown strong and successful, yet he also realizes that this powerful wrestler (“Israel”) dwells with his wife and kids. The great predatorial hunter doesn’t understand how the mighty, wolf-killing shepherd could have a vulnerable side to him.
As the conversation continues, Esau invites Jacob to journey with him. Jacob states that they cannot go at Esau’s quick and efficient pace, because “My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, they will die. Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children…” For Jacob, this is no lie. In truth, what Jacob is actually doing is showing Esau a different way of life. A life that contrasts itself with the Nietzschean idea of the strong, compassionless, unmerciful superhuman that Esau so strongly has embraced.
Once again, the difference between the hunter and the shepherd. Esau sees this way of life that his brother has adopted is in direct contrast with his, and so the mighty hunter rides away from the strange, confusing shepherd.
Again, these are not only two individuals, but two nations. A nation of hunters grows into a military super-power, much like what has been called the Roman-war machine, or in modern terms, what Eisenhower coined in his last address as US president, the “military-industrial complex.” The nation of hunters maintains the mindset of superiority over others, and thus forges itself into a dominant empire. This survival of the fittest mindset of the hunter creates a society that values success above all else. It gives birth to great new innovations. Massive buildings the size of mountains. It maintains the slogan that “greed is good,” and instead of taking responsibility for its own cruelty to those in the system who lose, it places the blame on the losers because “they should have been stronger.” The innovation of Esau is amazing. His ability to win hearts and minds–like Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and other strong warrior leaders throughout the West’s history–is fantastic. His efficiency, his strategy, and his strength and determination to succeed are unbeatable. Because he starves for it. It’s his entire life. He wants as much of it poured down his throat as possible. In fact, the only way that Esau could possibly even be defeated is from within–from his overindulgence. From gorging himself to death.
With the quick-paced efficiency and even hedonistic worldview that Esau has to offer this world, what does Jacob/Israel offer? The shepherd who guards?
He offers a slower pace. In fact, he offers to let the weak set the pace. A pace that is so slow that it seems extremely tedious to Esau. Small step by small step. No small lamb left behind. Empathy for those in pain, running to the weakest sheep, whether it be young or old. This type of pace drives Esau crazy. It’s pointless to him. It’s inefficient, nonessential. It strikes him as overly-domesticated and legalistic. He sees it as compromising his freedom.
And yet, from this mindset of the shepherd, comes the dream for “the lion to lay down with the lamb.” He dreams of Shabbat–the ultimate harmony. Because while the hunter lives a life of taking and basking in his own accomplishments, the shepherd lives a life of gratitude for each gift that is given to him. Because at his slow pace, he is able to take the time to appreciate the gifts of Providence. He sees the beauty, wonder and earth-shattering talents in those whom he is surrounded by–be they vulnerable and weak, or tough and self-sustaining. In his slow-paced life of gratitude, he is even able to see G-d at work in the physical world. He sees both lion and lamb as glorious works of the Creator.
What is the shepherd’s secret? It all starts with his empathy and patience for the sheep. The truth is, sheep are some very stupid animals. They wander off. They don’t listen. And when they put themselves in a life-threatening situation that they never would have gotten into if they would have only listened to the shepherd in the first place, they cry out to the shepherd for help. Sound familiar? And despite the flaws of the sheep, the shepherd runs the rescue. If one can have empathy for such animals, how much more could they have empathy for people? It is no wonder that the Patriarchs, Moses, King David, and other great figures in Jewish history have taken on the role of shepherd. In the end, the shepherd emulates the traits of G-d towards His creation–this combination of both zealous guardian and compassionate and merciful comforter, reflecting the One Who states in Exodus 22:22, “You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and my anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword…” It is difficult to imagine the nation of Esau taking on such a defense of the weak, nonessential when there is “nothing in it for him.” Thus it is not the hunter who pursues a life of purity and holiness, it is the shepherd. The fast-paced life of Esau has no time for such quaint, backward, trivial matters when there is so much to gain from the essential and sustainable hunt.
Nevertheless, when the shepherd fights the wolf or lion, he unleashes his dark side. He will do everything he can to kill his opponent. Just like the hunter, he is a survivor and he fights with everything he has in him. Yet, while the hunter fights for the sake of satisfying his own essential desires, the shepherd fights for peace. Because the shepherd, in his soul, to quote again from J.R.R. Tolkien, feels that “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
Thus when there is no more need to fight the wolf, Israel the shepherd smiles, lays down his weapons and is at peace. And maybe gives his sheepdog a hug.
When Esau finds there is no more need to fight, he loses his identity and falls apart. And so he cannot imagine a life without fighting.
This is the nation of the hunter. This is the nation of the shepherd.
Both ancient and modern history contains both, up to the present time.
About the Author
Yehonatan was born in Dover, Tennessee, US. After converting to Judaism under the conservative movement, he made Aliyah, and converted again in Jerusalem under the Israeli Rabbanut at Machon Meir. He lives in Kiryat Arba/Hevron with his wife and daughter.
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