It wasn’t Mary who had the little lamb. It was Moses.

The great Moses was a reluctant leader. He didn’t want to become a king, president or prime minister. When he stood before the Burning Bush, he offered a long list of reasons why he was not the man for the job. Yet Moses went on to become the greatest leader of all time.

Why did God choose Moses as the first leader of the Jewish people? Why was Moses the one destined for greatness? The answer is: because of the little lamb.

At the time he was called on by God, Moses was a simple shepherd tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, in Midian. He had escaped there when Pharaoh put a price on his head for killing an Egyptian taskmaster who was mercilessly beating a Hebrew slave. While Moses was looking after the sheep, God observed a small episode, a little vignette, that would catapult Moses to greatness and change his life forever.

A single lamb had disappeared from the flock. Moses, the devoted shepherd, went looking for him. He found the lamb at a stream, drinking from the water. “I didn’t realize you were tired and thirsty,” thought Moses. Moses waited for the lamb to finish drinking, and then picked him up and lovingly carried him back to the flock.

According to the Midrash, when God saw this scene, he decided that a man who cares about a single lost sheep is a true, dedicated shepherd. God then decided that he would appoint Moses as the faithful shepherd of God’s people—Israel.

It’s a beautiful and touching story with a profound message.

When a little lamb wanders away from its flock and gets lost, it may not be AWOL. It isn’t necessarily being rebellious. The lost sheep may be looking for something. It may be tired and thirsty and in need of rest and water. It’s not necessarily a “black sheep” rejecting its family. It may simply need to be looked after, nurtured and brought back home.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe insisted that when a Jew becomes lost to his people, that Jew is not necessarily rejecting his faith or his community. He may be a searcher who is thirsty for something deeper. Perhaps he or she did not find the spiritual satisfaction they were seeking and went looking elsewhere.

Over the years, we have lost many of our young Jews to other movements—religious or otherwise—not because they rejected Judaism but because they were never exposed to Judaism’s richness and depth. A little bit of Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah preparation devoted almost exclusively to a one-off “performance” on the day was not meaningful enough to attract their long-term attention. Many “lost” Jews have confessed that, if they had known how relevant and spiritual Judaism is, they would never have looked elsewhere.

The true shepherd understands this. These “lost sheep” were not acting out, rebelling or rejecting the faith of their birth. They were simply ignorant; more often than not, through no fault of their own. Many were seekers after a deeper spirituality they never found growing up in Jewish suburbia.

How many young Israelis have we lost to eastern religions when they went to the Far East after serving heroically in the IDF? Far too many. Particularly after their traumatic battlefield experiences, they were seeking deeper meaning in life. When they discovered the spirituality of the East they were smitten. They never even knew that Judaism had a spiritual component. The ashrams of Asia are filled with young, spiritually hungry Jews.

Thankfully, since Chabad opened branches throughout the Far East, the number of lost Jews has dropped dramatically. They now discover that their own people are there to welcome and nurture them both physically and spiritually.

Moses, the faithful shepherd, brought the lost sheep back to his flock. We need to do the same with our own people.

So, when you see young Jews who look like they don’t quite “belong,” take it as a personal challenge to make them feel at home. History has shown that once they come home, they may never leave.

Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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