When I was young, Papa told me not to love the flocks. “They don’t belong to us,” he said. I remember we were in the field with the other men. Papa had an arm around the abdomen of a male. With his free hand he gave the animal’s head a calming pat while next to him another shepherd used a freshly sharpened blade to trim its wool. It was late spring, shearing season. My first season in the fields with Papa. I was still a boy, then, learning my father’s way. The task he gave me was gathering the clumps of wool and stuffing each into a sackcloth purse. These shorn winter coats would be turned over to the overseers; they would soon become blankets or cloaks to warm the wealthy.
“You give them names,” Papa went on. “You mustn’t do that. They are not yours to name. They are not for us. They are meant for others.”
“What am I to call them then?”
Papa squinted against the afternoon sun, beholding me. I imagine he was trying to picture me older, stronger, accomplished in this trade (if you can even call it a trade). What to say to me in that moment? These were formative years, and for Papa everything was a lesson. I was his only son, after all. Who else did he have to teach such things?
“If you must call them by name, this one is kaphar.” He gave the animal’s head another attentive pat. It snorted softly, bearing the shepherds’ grasp, uncomfortable but unafraid. The knife finished its work, and Papa released the male, giving it a gentle shove back toward the grazing flock.
Kaphar, covering. Reminding me the flock was meant for the Temple, for atonement. These were beasts of sacrifice, not domesticity. Papa pointed to several others around us. “That one is kaphar, that one is kaphar, that one is kaphar…”
“I get it,” I replied, gesturing to another. “That one’s kaphar, too.”
“No.” Papa shook his head. “That one is shalom. And so is that one, and, let’s see… that one.” He nodded in the direction of several other members of the flock.
“Because,” my father said. “They’re female.”
I should have known. A boy, yes, but I was old enough to have learned this distinction, that the males were for burnt offerings – kaphar, for sin – and the females were for peaceful offerings – shalom.
“These are no common beasts,” Papa continued. “They are the most precious animals in all the world. More valuable than all the animals in a king’s stables. Greater than the greatest ofs Roman war horses. These flocks belong to HaShem. It is our duty to care for them. Protect them. And never, ever leave them. Do you understand?”
Looking up from the animals, I met his eyes and nodded. He turned his attention back to the sheep, reached out and took reverent hold of another unshorn. I went back to gathering tufts of wool.
We abide in the fields. It is far too much trouble to bring in the flocks every night, nor is any village pen trustworthy. The flocks we tend are substantial, and valuable. There are few pens anyway; most folks in Bethany, Ein Karem, Bethphage, and the other towns that lie in the shadow of the Holy City tether their family goat or ox inside their houses at night. Besides, the Law commands animals intended for sacrifice must dwell outside for a full year, even the rainy months. So, our time is spent in the fields around Migdal Eder, the ancient watchtower that marks the Temple pastures. To the south is Bethlehem. To the north, the Mount. We usually avoid both. We’re shepherds, after all.
Throughout my many years of tending, I’ve learned to accept our reputation as outcasts, even if I don’t necessarily understand it. The priests don’t care for us – to them we’re an unfortunate necessity. The rabbis and the lawyers overlook us, seeing in our tattered and smelly garments only a dishonorable, uneducated lot. And most commoners don’t trust us. They think us disreputable carousers, men who’ve chosen a life away from society, contributing not to the good of a local village but only to the industry of the Temple. While some in these villages may eventually purchase one of these animals when they go up for the festivals, most people in this land can’t afford the asking price for an unblemished lamb. Instead, they offer the family goat or a pair of pigeons. To the commoners, we shepherds are nothing more than rich men’s slaves, lurking far too close to their doors for comfort.
If our jobs contribute to big business, we see no returns. Those among us who make sacrifice, who choose to brave the stares and upturned noses and occasional, prejudicial threats of the Temple crowds, can afford nothing. All we have to give is the meagerest of possessions – grain meal, which our women harvest from the wild edges of others’ fields. I’ve often sat under the stars at night, watching as the lights of the nearest village extinguish one by one, and wondered to myself, Are we poor because we’re shepherds, or are we shepherds because we’re poor?
We take turns in the fields. Each month, a few men are given leave to return to the encampment and see their women. The rest of us remain in the fields, awaiting our turn to do the same. At night, we sleep in shifts. To stay awake, those on watch walk amongst the flock. When the moon is but a sliver, we must be vigilant. Predators thrive in these hills. Lions, leopards, foxes, and bears all prowl at night. So do thieves who slink down from the rocky hilltops. An unblemished ram fetches quite a price on the black market. In my years, I’ve encountered them all, and I can’t say for certainty which is the most dangerous. On our shifts, we keep alert. A lost ram, a wounded sheep, even an abrasion caused if the flock scatters… every mistake means less pay, and that means less food to send back to camp.
When the lambs are born, we swaddle them. Like babies. When allowed to move about on their own, newborn lambs are maddeningly prone to accidents. One stumble or nick of the hide renders the animal blemished, unfit for the intended sacrifice. Even the birth canal can cause defects. So, our job is to inspect them and then wrap them. A tedious task, but it’s for the best. When the Temple authorities come out to inspect the flock, they’re nothing if not thorough. They expect every animal, from the lambs to the adults, to be perfect. We shepherds receive no praise for those that pass. Only condemnation when blemishes are found. Ours is a thankless job.
This is the season of long nights. Sometimes it feels like darkness is annexing the day, shaving it off at both ends. Papa is long since passed, but his many lessons haven’t faded from my mind. I have children of my own now, back in camp. A few more years and my eldest will join me in these fields, just as I did with my father. I’ll introduce him to these pastures, to the paths we weave among them. I’ll give him a purse and direct him to gather the shorn clumps of wool. I’ll teach him to use a staff, to read tracks, to discern scents on the wind. He’ll learn our way in full and inherit our place in this world. This will be his life, for better or for worse. I often hear Papa’s voice in my mind, those lessons of my youth. Time is a circle, my son. It always repeats, generation to generation, never changing. As reasonable a notion as that seems, when I was younger, I found such words dispiriting. To me, time was a grand story unfolding. And like any good story, at any moment something extraordinary might forever alter our circumstances. Now, after decades of shepherding these fields, rain, shine, and rain again, I see like most things Papa was right. And yet, under these stars tonight, there is the faintest whisper of longing inside me. Longing for something different. For the cycle to be broken.
Other words fill my mind, too. Behold, speaks the Lord through his prophet, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs up – do you perceive it? I make a way in the wilderness.
This was a targum – one of the bite-sized pieces of sacred Torah – I’ve held onto since I was small. A good word for any shepherd, I always believed. A call to expectation. To alertness.
The flock seems restless tonight. Walking among them, I see many shifting about. They don’t doze, but instead pique their ears. They snort and sniff the air, expelling little clouds of frustration. They sense something. Can hear it, or perhaps smell it, drawing close. My hand tightens around my staff. I signal to the others on watch, meeting their eyes. Keep alert, my gaze tells them. Something is near. I can feel my heart quicken. It will be one of those nights.
When it is over, and the fields are quiet again, we stare at one another with stunned expressions. We on watch and the others around the fire, startled awake by the visitation. Some gaze up wonderingly into the starry night, which only moments earlier was filled with a light so bright it is difficult to believe the hills are not now on fire. Around us, the flock calms, chews grass, slips back into a doze. A gentle wind caresses the land. Kaphar and shalom.
You must go! I turn as if spoken to, but the other men are still staring, mouths agape. The voice, I realize, is in my mind. Papa’s voice. Only now it is filled with an earnestness quite unlike the man I knew. You must go, my boy! You must see. Now it springs up – do you not perceive it? He makes a way in the wilderness.
When I speak, the sound of my voice in the quiet almost makes me jump. The men look at me questioningly, so I say it again. “We must go. We must see this thing HaShem has told to us.”
“It isn’t for us,” says one of the men by the fire. He’s still clutching the thin blanket that was draped over him before the heavens opened. His eyes are wide, unblinking. He looks to say more – to give reason for his hesitancy – but only repeats, “It isn’t for us. It must be for others.”
I approach the fire. My heart pounds. Those faint whispers of longing from my youth now cry out inside me. All that I ever wished for, which the years in these fields assured me could never be, has indeed broken through and brought an end to the endless cycle, just as I always hoped. How can we – even we – ignore what the Lord wishes us to see?
“It is for us!” I say, wanting it to be true. And then it occurs to me it is true. This message, and this sight, is actually for us!
This will be a sign to you, that extraordinary voice said. A baby, swaddled in cloths, placed in a manger. Like … a lamb. It’s true, HaShem’s face has shined upon us. I step closer to the others around the waning fire. This is no king born in a palace. He will not be found in some wealthy, privileged home. This will be a humble house – the humblest – for the only coverings available to this newborn are swaddling clothes and the only crib an ox’s feeding trough. For whatever reason, this family is hardly better off than we. To us is born an overlooked king, an unnoticed savior. We shepherds, I explain to the men, may be the only ones capable of recognizing him at all.
One of the men gestures to the flock. “Do we just… leave them? How can we?”
“How can we not?” another quickly replies. I see a wide grin spread beneath his scraggly beard. He meets my eyes.
I nod. I realize I’m smiling, too. For the first time, something more precious than these has come. Again, I hear Papa’s voice in my mind. This is kaphar. This is shalom.
Nothing more needs saying. We wrap our cloaks, grip our staves, and set off for the little town lying still and unaware in the distance.