Kollot Haftarah Introduction: on meritocracy and inequality.

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 January 2023

Our haftarah this morning is taken, as is our tradition in our Kollot services, from the writings of the rabbis.

When looking at these haftarot, one of the questions we might ask is – What’s bothering them?  In particular, when reading a passage alongside Torah, what is there in the biblical text with which they found themselves in tension, what are they struggling against?


Our haftarah this morning is a good example.

It is a midrash on the first line that Harry read for us – moshe hayah ro’eh.

In the Torah narrative, this is really just a scene setter – why is Moses out in the wilderness?  Well, moshe hayah ro’eh.  Like a number of other biblical characters Moses was a shepherd, and the wilderness is where shepherds do their business.

The Torah doesn’t tell us much about Moses’ shepherding – it’s not really relevant.  Similarly, the Book of Samuel tells us only that David is out tending the flock when Samuel visits his father Jesse, not what he is like as a shepherd.


So, on one level this midrash is simply a classic example of the rabbis ‘filling in the gap’ by telling an additional story of their own.


But underpinning this text is a real and deep difference between bible and rabbis in how they saw the world.

Important to the rabbinic psyche is that the world is meritocratic: that there is a link between our virtues and our rewards, that we get what we deserve, that we are able to earn merit in a system of divine justice.  That hard work makes a difference, that those who wield power and influence somehow earn it.

Theirs is a world of social mobility, in which Rabbi Akiva, an uneducated shepherd, can become head of his own school. In which Reish Lakish went from bandit to beit midrash. In which Hillel, too poor to enter the study house, sat on the roof listening in, and became, well, Hillel, whose influence stretches throughout the rabbinic exercise.

They are therefore deeply uncomfortable with the process of divine selection in Torah.  Because biblical characters don’t tend to have neat backstories like this.  There is no explanation of why they are the man – almost always the man – for the job. What have they done to make this happen? Why Abraham? Why Moses? Why King David?


In the absence of a biblical explanation, the rabbis are desperate to provide an answer.

So, that’s what our midrash does.


The reason that they give here, in our text, is unexpected and magnificent.

It is not about lineage, or status, or theology, or muscle, or – interestingly for the rabbis – education or study, but about tenderness.

David and Moses, according to this midrash, are worthy of positions of the leadership they are granted by God because, in their tending of the flock they demonstrate the care and thoughtfulness to tend God’s people.

It is a truly beautiful perspective on the responsibility of leadership.


But, importantly, this is the voice of midrash, not of Torah.

The Torah has a different concern.  It is not uncomfortable with the randomness.  Moses is happily minding his own business, tending his father in law’s sheep.  He has fled and shows no personal inclination to return. So, it isn’t clear why he earns the call at this moment, what he does to provoke divine interest.

Nor does he necessarily have the skills to lead – as he recognises himself with him first question back to God at the burning bush – ‘mi anochi ki eileich el paroh’ – ‘who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?’


The concern of the Torah, is not why are we chosen, but what do we do when we are?

The answer to Moses’s question, ‘who am I’ – is not ‘you are someone special, or different, or worthy’.  But ‘I am with you’.  That is, we are all ‘someone’, but you happen to be the someone I have chosen.


As many of you will know – I am normally with the rabbis. But, Torah’s voice here is important to hear.

We live in a world which is rabbinic in understanding:  We are convinced, or are told, or tell ourselves, that we live in a meritocratic society – we can achieve what we want as long as we work hard enough; be anything if we have the talent; when we succeed, we have earned it:  we deserve what we have – and therefore, by extension – those who have not achieved have not earned it by their own failure.  The midrash we read here is a modern midrash – Moses cannot just have been lucky, or chosen, or privileged, he must have been worthy.


But we know that there are deep systemic challenges in our society which mean that we do not all start from the same place, that social mobility is not as the rabbis imagine it.  What we achieve is not only based on our efforts or abilities. The playing field – the sheepfold as it were – is not level.  There are plenty of good shepherds who work hard, care for their flock, but don’t get to become leader.

And, as our member Michael Marmot reminds us – for all the language of meritocracy there are, built into our society, inequalities that impact not only on social mobility but on more fundamental things – health, wellbeing, and length of life.


The haftarah that Mark will read for us in a moment is beautiful – it reflects a particular struggle that the rabbis have with Torah – how was Moses called, what had he done to earn it.  But, as we read it, we might reflect on the worldview it promotes, and whether this reflects reality? Perhaps the opacity of the biblical call is more accurate?

The Torah view is a challenge to all of us who find ourselves in positions of leadership, all who are privileged or powerful – which, if we are honest is many of us in this room, relatively speaking – not to congratulate ourselves on what we have earned, but to think about how we use it.

Not to ask, ‘what have we done to be called’, as the rabbis might, but to recognise ‘mi anochi’ – and to ask how we should respond when we are?


Sh’mot Rabbah 2:2

“And Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro” (Exodus 3:1)

It is written: “The Eternal tests the righteous” (Psalm 11:5). By what does God test them? By having them tend sheep.


God tested David through the flock, and found him to be a good shepherd.  As it is said: “God chose David as a servant and took him from the sheepfolds” (Psalm 78:70).

He would restrain the bigger sheep on account of the smaller ones.  He would let out the lambs to graze first, so they could graze on the tender part of the grass.  After that, he sent out the older sheep to graze on the middle part of the grass, and finally, he brought out some select sheep who would be able to eat the tougher grass. The Holy One said, “Someone who knows how to tend sheep in this way, each according to their needs, such a person can come and tend my people”.  As it says, “God brought him from minding nursing ewes to tend God’s people Jacob, Israel, God’s very own” (Psalm 78:71).


Also, the Holy One tested Moses through sheep.

Our Rabbis said that when Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, was tending the flock of Jethro in the wilderness, a kid escaped from him. He ran after it until it reached a shady place. When it reached the shady place, there appeared a pool of water and the kid stopped to drink.  When Moses approached it, he said, “I did not know that you ran away because of thirst; you must be tired.”  So, he placed the kid on his shoulder and walked away.

The Holy One said, “You have mercy in leading a flock that belongs to flesh and blood.  This, you are suitable to tend my flock, Israel.” Hence, “And Moses was tending the flock.”