Vayigash – Career of the Righteous

After Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, he brought them down with their father and rest of the family to sojourn in Egypt, specifically in the land of Goshen. “Yosef said to his brothers and to his father’s household, ‘I will go up and tell Pharaoh, and I will say to him, my brothers and my father’s household who were in the land of Canaan have come to me. The men are shepherds, for they were [always] owners of livestock, and their flocks and their cattle and all they have they have brought’” (Breishis 46:31, 32).

Why were the brothers shepherds and why does it seem that many of the major Jewish leaders throughout Tanach were shepherds at some point in time?

Rabbeinu Bachye
enlightens us with a fascinating answer. He begins by saying that Yosef was emphasizing that the brothers were shepherds of their own flock so that it would not be misunderstood and thought that they tended others’ sheep, being in the business of investments. That is why Yosef added: “for they were [always] owners of livestock;” to inform everyone that the sheep did not belong to others, but were their own, for they were very wealthy. The reason why the brothers chose this profession, which was also the profession of their forefathers, was twofold:

  1. There was tremendous profit in wool, milk, and offspring. It also doesn’t require a lot of great toil, and is without sin. About this King Shlomo said, “Know well the condition of your flocks; give your attention to the herds” (Mishlei 27:23).
  2. The brothers knew that they and their offspring would be exiled to Egypt and because the Egyptians worshiped the form of a sheep, the brothers therefore took upon this profession so that their descendants would accustom themselves to it and the worshiping of sheep would be foreign to them.

We also find that most of the righteous and prophets were shepherds. We find by Hevel, “Behold Hevel was a shepherd of sheep” (Breishis 4:2). So too Moshe: “And Moshe was a shepherd” (Shemos 3:1). So was the prophet Shmuel, as well as King Shaul, and King Dovid; they were all shepherds. The reason they chose to be shepherds were in order to stay away from populated areas since many sins stem from being among people. For example: lashon hara and rechilus (slander and gossiping), swearing falsely, inappropriate relationships, stealing, and extortion. The more one stays away from people, the easier he escapes the trap of sin. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It would seem that besides being an easy and affluent job, being a shepherd seems to be an honest job that can keep one out of trouble. The brothers had the impeccable idea and deep insight into human dynamic that by going into this profession they would create a habit inside their family of treating sheep as mere animals that can be controlled and manipulated for business purposes. By accustoming themselves to treating them as their own flock, which is guided by them, it created a sense of reality which made it virtually impossible for their descendants to be lured into the idolatrous tendencies of the Egyptians that viewed sheep as gods.

It would also seem that other righteous people and prophets used this profession to create a habit in order to distance oneself from sin, for it surely wasn’t something that they did their entire lives. For Moshe Rabbeinu, the prophet Shmuel, King Shaul, and King Dovid  weren’t shepherds, away from civilization, their entire lives since each of them was a leader in their generation! It would seem that by just going into this profession, it puts one in a position to avoid all these sins, as it will accustom a person to stay distant from those sins even when they are forced to go into public office and handle a wide array of people. Those years of being a shepherd built up the fortitude and habit in each one of them to appreciate and imbibe the sense to stay away from those sins so that when they came into the public spotlight, they were sensitive to these issues and knew how to act accordingly for the most part.

We see from here how important it is to choose a clean and honest profession because it can make such an impact on a person which will create habits and have ramifications on how he and even his future descendants will act, and G-D forbid the opposite could be true as well, that choosing a dishonest and sleezy profession might have a very negative impact on you and your family.