Raya Mehemna

Rabbi Alon C Ferency
August 27, 2014
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During the U’netaneh Tokef, the signal prayer of the holidays, we are enjoined to think of God k’vakarat ro’eh ‘edro, as a Shepherd reviewing God’s flock.  To place this phrase in context, it was common practice for the shepherd to account for her flock (and there is evidence that this was a profession of both genders), by leading them through a single file passage at the day’s beginning and end, thereby counting them one-by-one.  In the liturgy of the machzor (the High Holiday prayerbook), we pass before God under the Shepherd’s crook, “like children of Maron.”  By most explanations, Maron was the region of a mountain pass, with a narrow defile through which no two could travel abreast.  Ovadia of Bartenura, a 15th century rabbi, says that like a shepherd, “The Creator sees our hearts altogether, and comprehends all our acts. Even though they pass one-by-one, all are seen in a single glance.” This is God’s essential work: to know us each intimately, and also all as one humanity. God sees us all as individuals, and knows us altogether as the People Israel.

In fact, the profession of a shepherd seems to be a venerable model of Jewish leadership.  Midrash understands that the work of a Shepherd was good training to become a leader of Jews.  Nearing his death, Moses ask God, “Let the God of the spirits of all flesh take note of a person within the congregation, who will go out before them and come back before them – leading them out and bringing them in – so that the God’s congregation will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Numbers 27:16-17) Thereafter in Zohar, and amplified by later Chassidic traditions, the community rabbi became known as Raya Mehemna, the faithful shepherd.

That is my model of the rabbinate: to give faithful service as a communal leader. Just as a shepherd seeks out fine pastures, we seek to demonstrate a vision for the future, to gather a community together in the same direction, and to help us get there securely. Along the way, the shepherd provides for the sheep, cares for them, and worries about their needs as though those needs were his own. In The Lord Is My Shepherd: The Theology of a Caring God, Rabbi Michael Samuel says, “The good shepherd must work with the instincts of the sheep and cannot force the flock to go where it does not want to go… [He] could not look after the health of the sheep while standing afar. He had to be close at hand [and] can never sleep nor be comforted until his lost sheep is brought back safely to the flock.”

A shepherd is not in control, and can only offer imperfect guidance; in religious terms, he is a “Spiritual Teacher” rather than a “Spiritual Leader.” In many ways, the shepherd and the sheep are not so far apart. As my mother is wont to point out, a good rabbi is only a few steps ahead of her community – enough to set a path, not so little to succumb to complacency, nor so far as to leave many behind. Likewise, in the Biblical era, the shepherd’s duty, honor, and welfare were bound up with the flock (for example, shepherds slept in the sheepfold). In Hammurabi’s code (18th century B.C.E.) and in later in Jewish legal precedent (halakhah), “The shepherd was held accountable for the flock and was responsible for their care.” The shepherd’s destiny is with the flock.

As the Isaiah prophecies: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd. He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with the young.”

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Rabbi Alon C Ferency pursued Israeli-Palestinian economic integration in the 1990’s at Harvard University. After a bicycle trip from Seattle to Boston, he entered the Peace Corps in Cameroon as a Community Health organizer. Then, he worked in the music industry, before receiving a Master’s Degree in Informal Jewish Education from J.T.S., and rabbinical ordination from the Ziegler School in 2010. Today, Alon is the rabbi of Heska Amuna Synagogue in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, he serves as a board member of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and served on the Community Health Council, Together! Healthy Knox, and the ethics committee of the University of Tennessee Medical Center. He is also a regular contributor to Conservative Judaism quarterly, and an alumnus of Leadership Knoxville and the Tikvah Fellowship. His sermons are available at heskaamuna.org/sermons.html; and, you may follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/EclecticCleric) and Twitter (@EclecticCleric).

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