Bear the Mitzvah Dog

First there was Rin Tin Tin and Toto. Then the world fell in love with Lassie, Beethoven and Marley.  We’ve faithfully followed the adventures of Astro and UnderDog. Now, here’s the gripping story of Bear the Mitzvah Dog… (Hollywood, are you paying attention?)

In Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers), the Mishnah asks, “Who is wise?” and answers with, “He who learns from everyone.”  In the Hebrew, that last word (which I translated as “everyone”) is adam, meaning “person.”  But I would argue that you don’t necessarily need to be human to be a mensch.  Our dog Bear has taught our family a lot in the past year, and it would be wise of you to take the time to read here about how this member of the canine species has actually helped us be better people and better Jews.

The Obamas have Bo. We have Bear.

The Obamas have Bo. We have Bear.

You will recall that last year the President and  First Lady  brought home to the White House a puppy named Bo for their girls. The Obamas figured that having a dog would help their family transition into their new living situation.  Coincidentally, we had the same idea, adopting Bear about a year ago – not long after we moved into our new house (which, as you can imagine, has just a tad less space for a dog to roam in than does the presidential mansion in Washington). Just as Bo has helped the First Family weather the rough year that was (and will continue to be until we finally bid adieu to 2009) , so has Bear assisted us in riding out a stressful period.

I have never been an animal lover. Just ask anyone who has ever known me.  I even made my husband choose between me and his cat (but hey, I had to choose between him and living in Israel…a long story for another time).  To be honest, I still don’t really think of myself as a typical pet owner (or guardian, to be more politically correct), but I have to admit that Bear has changed me.  It must have all been bashert, since I have absolutely no idea what possessed me twelve months ago, after years of habitually turning a deaf ear to  my husband’s relentless pleas for a dog, to seek out Bear through Craigslist.

I don’t have nearly enough material to write another Marley & Me, but I can tell you the ways in which our favorite pooch has unintentionally (or perhaps he did have a plan, but only Bear would know…and he isn’t talking) enriched our existence and led us to the observance of important mitzvot.

Bear, having been born to a female dog (I am purposely avoiding the technical term applicable here)  in a shelter and in and out of several homes over the course of his 4 1/2 years, was in the care of a rescue organization when we found him.  We gave Bear a home, and maybe even saved his life, considering what can happen to stray or unwanted dogs.  Pikuach nefesh, the preserving of life, is such an important precept in Judaism that one is permitted to desecrate the Sabbath in the act of trying to save someone.  I am guessing that my halachically observant friends might not condone our having driven up to San Francisco on a Saturday afternoon (after first attending shul, mind you)  to get Bear from his “foster mother,” instead of doing it the next day. But in our book, we were doing the right thing.  When we brought Bear home that day, my husband reminded our kids that the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) tells us that, “He who saves a single soul is considered to have saved the entire world.”  Whether dogs have souls or the Rabbis had non-humans in mind when crafting this beautiful aphorism, I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter, because from that moment, Bear has become an integral part of our family.

Our having a dog has most obviously brought to the fore the concept of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the prevention and alleviation of the suffering of animals, and its attendant laws and directives. However, Bear’s presence in our home has also focused the spotlight on the mitzvot of shmirat haguf (taking care of one’s body and physical well being) and kibbud av va’em (honoring one’s parents), as well as the religious imperative to appreciate nature and the wonders of creation.  By virtue of all those morning and evening walks with Bear, my husband has managed to keep fit and lose the pounds he put on since adapting to the California car culture. Our boys have taken on some of the responsibilities of pet guardianship and have heeded (with only minor kvetching) to our requests of them to feed, wash and play with the dog.  And finally, it is probably because of Bear that we native city folk are getting outside more and enjoying the beautiful suburban environment we live in, even if we only get as far as our backyard on some days.

What’s more, Rabbi Israel Salanter would be proud of the mussar starting to manifest itself as of late in our household, what with the virtues of patience, kindness, loyalty and love  that are being mutually displayed between our pet and us.(With my husband subtly hinting to me regularly that I could learn from the the example of Bear’s unconditional love.)

I thought that with our youngest son now in third grade, I was finished with having little ones in the house.  But now we have Bear (a 95 lb. Rottweiler mix, by the way), who no matter how old he gets, will always act pretty much like a human toddler. That’s fine with me. May Bear live (although unlikely, even in dog years) to 120, and she’nizkeh l’mitzvot - may we always merit the opportunity to fulfill mitzvot – with Bear showing us the way.

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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