"Daddy," Shimon said to his father on the way home from shul
. "As I was following the Torah reading today, I noticed that the parshah
speaks a lot about Yaakov's sheep. We learn all about his work as a shepherd. First, he worked as a shepherd in order to marry Leah and Rachel, and then the payment he gets is flocks of colored and spotted sheep. Afterwards, he manages to double and triple the number of sheep he owns. And when the Torah describes all his possessions, it lists the sheep first, even though he had many other belongings by then."
Shimon's father was very pleased. "I can see you have been listening closely to the Torah reading," he said. "You're right. The Torah does tell us about Yaakov and his sheep many times. And he wasn't the first shepherd, either."
"Yes," remarked Shimon. "I know. Many great Jews were shepherds like Avraham, Yitzchak, Moshe Rabbeinu, and Dovid HaMelech. We learned that they chose to be shepherds because it's a peaceful occupation and they could spend most of their time and energy serving HaShem. Still, I'm wondering why the Torah gives us so many details about Yaakov's sheep."
"Let me explain," began Shimon's father. "Our Rabbis teach us: Ma'asei avos siman labonim, "The deeds of the fathers are a lesson for their children." We must learn from all the things our forefathers did. When the Torah tells us about Yaakov's involvement with sheep, it is teaching us that there is something deeper and more meaningful here. Sheep stand for Yaakov's service to HaShem."
"What's so deep about sheep?" asked Shimon with a smile.
"Let's try to figure it out, Shimon," said his father. "The Hebrew word for sheep is itm. What small Hebrew word can be found in it?"
"That's easy," answered Shimon, "the word tm, which means 'go out.' "
"When the Torah tells us about Yaakov tending his sheep, it is also telling us about the way he served HaShem. Yaakov was always reaching out to others. Instead of concentrating on developing his own service of HaShem, he reached out to others and taught them how to serve HaShem too. Reaching out shows that we are thinking of others and not of ourselves. This is the avodah of bittul; putting other people's needs before our own. This was Yaakov's way of living, and we should follow in his footsteps."
(Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XV, Parshas Vayeitze)