The seven “shepherds,” seven eminent historical leaders of Israel, are distinguished from the other leaders of Israel in that they do not belong to history alone (although they certainly influenced history).
These leaders are above history in that they have continued to lead the Jewish People throughout the generations, even in our own times.
We sense that they are present among us not as memories from the past, but as direct influences on each of our souls.
The shepherds are our forefathers, the forbearers of all the souls of Israel.
Regardless of whether they are our biological forefathers, like the three Patriarchs, or our spiritual forefathers, as in the case of Joseph and David, we bear a part of their essence within ourselves.
They are not external figures, but rather form our inner essence.
–Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz