Be’er Yosef: A midrash points out that sheep keep turning up in the lives of great figures in Tanach. “HKBH does not bestow greatness upon a person without first testing him regarding small things.” It offers two examples. Both Moshe and Dovid began their training by tending to sheep, only graduating to become shepherds of Hashem’s holy flock after successfully proving themselves as capable and responsible in regard to the four-footed kind.
This may sound pretty, but it is entirely counterintuitive. Does it not make more sense to subject a candidate for a leadership position to some difficult tests, rather than measuring him in regard to a “small thing?”
Moreover, in the case of Moshe, he had already passed such tests. He displayed courage, loyalty and determination in Egypt, where he endangered himself by intervening against the Egyptian who was beating the Jew. He paid a stiff penalty for that episode, having to flee for his life. Nonetheless, when he came upon the shepherd women who were being harassed by the local men, he thought nothing of his own safety, and once again intervened to correct an injustice. Wasn’t this behavior stronger evidence of his greatness and worthiness to lead?
In fact, there was no greater evidence of the suitability of Moshe and Dovid than their very selection by HKBH! Surely Hashem chose people who were suitable to lead – great in wisdom, righteousness, and of sterling character. Moshe is called the “man of G-d;” Dovid is called “one mighty in courage, a warrior, understanding in all matters…and Hashem was with him.” Chazal2 apply all of those descriptions to Dovid’s abilities in Torah study.
Indeed, Hashem knew well whom He chose and why He chose them. Moshe and Dovid did not have to prove themselves. The test/ nisayon each was subjected to was intended to demonstrate to others who they were, to make manifest the wonderful traits each possessed.
Why sheep? Because what Hashem wanted them to show was that they were capable of enormous concern for small, trivial things. An effective leader must be able to address the needs of his people, which often are quite pedestrian and commonplace. People of exalted spirit and intellectual accomplishment often have a difficult time relating to matters that are not exclusively lofty, intellectually stimulating, and infused with spirituality. Moshe’s head and spirit were in the heavens – but he could still trudge a distance to care for a single, lost sheep, and then trudge back with the exhausted sheep flung across his back.
Similarly, Dovid was able to provide compassionate care to each animal in his flock – the young, the old, the weak, the strong – each according to its needs. He provided this care even after honing his spiritual skills, after developing that deveikus to Hashem we see in Tehilim. Dovid did not grow aloof and remote from trivial concerns, but maintained his spiritual elevation even as he threw himself into work that was far from elevated.
This, then, is the meaning of the midrash that Hashem chooses His leaders through “small things:” He determines that, despite their greatness, the candidates are able to effectively deal with small, everyday matters, and relate to the petty needs of all people, those who are great and those far from great.