Cary Kozberg
Cary Kozberg

Going to the dogs

Last week we had to put our dog Mia down. This week we had to put our dog Misha down. Both dogs were old and sick. Both were rescues and they enriched our lives for over 10 years. Mia was a border collie/lab mix; Misha was a German shepherd.

Mia, the border collie/lab mix, was a working dog — energetic and always needing something to do. She exemplified the qualities of loyalty and initiative and even after sustaining several ministrokes, continued to have boundless energy. Misha was a “wise old soul” — always patient, always loving, always gracious. Looking into her eyes you knew that if she could talk, you could expect to hear bits of wisdom coming from her. Along with our remaining dog, Maddie, they would always wait impatiently and excitedly to get their bites of challah at the Shabbat dinner table. Watching them every week, I think that if all Jews were as excited about the arrival of Shabbat as our dogs were about getting their piece of challah, Mashiach would certainly come!

Hearing about what we had to do, many of our Jewish friends who are also dog owners have totally empathized, having had similar experiences. Others, having been taught that owning dogs is not something faithful Jews do, have tried to be sympathetic, but cannot really relate.

To be sure, Jewish tradition is not of one voice in its attitude toward dogs. The Tanakh/Bible mostly focuses on the negative characteristics of dogs. Often associated with degradation and violence, dogs were known as scavengers living on animal flesh unfit for human consumption, shameless in their lack of modesty, traveling in packs and filling the air with their barking. To this day, it is certainly no compliment to be called “a dog”. Just think of the literal meaning of “S.O.B.”!

However, as dogs became more domesticated, they were more appreciated for their watchfulness and reliability. While the Talmud warned against keeping vicious dogs in one’s house, it also advised that for safety’s sake, people not to dwell in a town where there were no dogs that barked.

Eventually, the Tradition came to respect and admire a dog’s instincts and perceptions. Later teachers noted that a dog’s joyful barking was a sign of good news, even suggesting that when Elijah the prophet comes to announce the coming of the Messiah, dogs will bark happily. They taught that when a dog howls it is often a sign that the Angel of Death is near. Moreover, they preferred dogs over cats because unlike a cat a dog recognizes and acknowledges who his master is, and similarly humans should know who their Master is as well (apologies to cat-lovers!).

Of note is the Talmudic sage Rav’s explanation of the ot (the mark/sign) given to Cain after he murdered his brother Abel was actually a dog. Though G-d had decreed that Cain become an outcast and be removed from contact with other human beings, He had compassion on Cain and gave him a dog for companionship and protection against would-be killers. Commenting on this midrash, one commentary declares: “there is no better guard than a dog.” (Cf. Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 22:12, Mirkin ed., p. 174)

It is said that since angels are pure spirits, they can take the form of whatever body G-d assigns them. Reflecting on our time with Mia and Misha and how profoundly they affected my wife and me, I choose to believe that they were not just companions, but angels/messengers sent from G-d. Decidedly, I’m with Wendy Francisco who wrote:

I look up and I see God, I look down and see my dog.
Simple spelling G O D, same word backwards, D O G.

They would stay with me all day.
I’m the one who walks away.

But both of them just wait for me,
And dance at my return with glee.

Both love me no matter what –
Divine God and canine mutt.

I take it hard each time I fail,
But God forgives, dog wags his tail.

God thought up and made the dog,
Dog reflects a part of God.

I’ve seen love from both sides now,
It’s everywhere: “Amen.” “Bow Wow.”

I look up and I see God,
I look down and see my dog.

And in my human frailty…
I can’t match their love for me.

Every day for over 10 years, our two precious pooches testified to this truth:

My wife and I wept unashamedly when we had to let Mia and Misha go. But, believing as we do in a gracious and loving G-d, we are comforted in knowing that ALL DOGS AUTOMATICALLY GO TO HEAVEN. Even though we are grieving, we are grateful for the time He gave us to provide both Mia and Misha with loving homes and for the lessons, each of them taught us.

Their memories will always be a blessing and an inspiration to us.

About the Author
Cary Kozberg is a rabbi who has served in congregations, Hillel, and health care chaplaincy. He is currently rabbi of Temple Sholom in Springfield, Ohio
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