Bo 5783: Of Dogs and Humanity
After approximately 17 years of haranguing by our children, in the spring of 2020, like so many other families, we adopted a dog. Her name is Phoebe (pic above is of yours truly and the pooch out for a walk this week). Phoebe is an unusual breed called a Plott Hound. She has a beautiful brown coat of fur with a black brindle that makes her look almost like a tiger.
As is often the case in these situations, our children promised up and down “We’ll walk her and feed her and clean her.” Since this is a family publication, I won’t write the eight-letter word that starts with a B and ends with a T that comes next. Suffice it to say that my wife and I have emerged as Phoebe’s primary caretakers. And, given that I work from home while she goes to an office, I’m the primary dog-walker. Since I’m also usually the first one up in the morning, I’m the one who feeds her breakfast.
While Phoebe and I have thus developed a special bond, I confess that it’s not always easy. Sometimes I have to squeeze in a walk between zoom meetings or phone calls or teaching. As I now travel more frequently, we have to make arrangements for doggy day care. It’s not so simple to plan family vacations anymore.
I’ll confess that a result of all of this is that sometimes I experience feelings of impatience or resentment towards the dog. There have been moments on our walks when she wants to stop and sniff something particularly sniff-worthy and I feel in a hurry to get home and my impatience overcomes me and I find myself yanking on her chain to get her to move. There are other times when she hasn’t gotten enough stimulation or attention (and let’s be honest: she always wants attention) and I come into the den or the living room to find that she’s rummaged through the trash in search of some food remnant that someone left there, leaving a mess of used Kleenexes and other detritus strewn about. Yuck.
But in my better moments (which, thankfully, seem to outnumber my lesser ones), I find that walking Phoebe is an extraordinary opportunity for practicing mindfulness. I set an intention—a route through the neighborhood, a general time window, and an emotional quality of awareness, compassion, and ease that I want to embody. It doesn’t take long for those intentions to be tested in some way: a deviation from the path, some unexpected encounter on the sidewalk, a squirrel. Or my mind wanders: to what’s on my mind at work, or what’s giving me a little anxiety with friends or family or the world. But then I look at Phoebe, I feel her on the leash, the two of us connected by this kind of umbilical cord, and I bring my attention back to my intention: to be compassionate, to be calm, to walk the path with ease and flexibility.
There’s a seemingly perplexing mention of dogs in Parashat Bo. As Moses relates to the Israelites how the Holy One will go through Egypt and slay the Egyptian firstborn, he says, “but not a dog shall snarl at any of the Israelites, at human or beast—in order that you may know that YHVH makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Exodus 11:7). What is the dog doing here? How does the dog’s absence of barking/snarling/making a sound signify the Holy One’s capacity to draw distinctions between the oppressors and the oppressed?
The Twentieth century French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote a short reflection on this verse. “At the supreme hour,” Levinas observes, “with neither ethics nor logos” (that is, the capacity for language), “the dog will attest to the dignity of its person. This is what the friend of man means. There is a transcendence in the animal!” Levinas goes on to relate a story from his own internment by the Nazis as a French Jewish prisoner of war. As the Germans gradually degraded them—“We were subhuman, a gang of apes… We were no longer part of the world”—a wandering dog suddenly appeared. The group named him Bobby (“an exotic name, as one does with a cherished dog”). Levinas tells us that Bobby “would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight. For him, there was no doubt that we were men.”
When we adopted Phoebe, my teacher Laurie Zoloth (a dog owner and Levinas scholar) commented on Facebook, “A dog will always remind you of your humanity!” She of course had this passage of Levinas in mind. In the nearly three years since, I’ve found this truth borne out in embodied and spiritual ways. Walking a dog, like anything else, can become rote and routine. It can become something to do mindlessly or distractedly (how many of us walk our dogs while also checking our email?). And, like anything else, dog walking—and, more broadly, living in relationship with a dog or frankly any other creature—provides us yet another opportunity to practice awareness, presence, and intention.
Perhaps that’s why the dog is in this verse, at this moment of liberation: What separates the oppressor from those whom they oppress is awareness, intention, and compassion. As Levinas taught elsewhere, the ethical point of Jewish practice (halakha, as he would call it) is to condition us such that, when we are confronted with moments when we might become the oppressor, we will, instead, act mindfully, with hesed, the awareness of the loving interconnection that imbues our lives as members of Creation. May our relationships with all creatures, and the spiritual practices we maintain, nurture that awareness within us.