When I was around eight years old, my father took me to a local veterinarian where he surprised me and brought home a dog. It was part German shepherd and part collie with a beautiful dog face, a long snout and expressive eyes. I was really happy with my new friend who slept in my room at night and was always there to cheer me up when I had a bad day. So it was easy to me to be caught up in the very picturesque and exciting Eight Below, the story of Jerry Shepherd, a guide at an Antarctica research base, who is compelled because of a life-threatening storm to evacuate the base and leave his devoted team of sled dogs behind.
Jerry’s team of dogs has saved people’s lives on more than one occasion, and Jerry feels a deep sense of loyalty to his animal friends. When the weather turns worse than expected, precluding a rescue of the dogs until the spring, Jerry feels an overwhelming sense of guilt for having abandoned them. As his guilt grows, we see how the dogs are faring by themselves, which is surprisingly well under the circumstances.
A central theme of Eight Below is gratitude. The dogs have been kind to Jerry, fiercely loyal to him despite performing their critically important tasks under cruel weather conditions. He counts on them, and they always deliver. Inwardly, he senses that his dogs are relying on him for rescue, and mentally and emotionally he never gives up on them. He is grateful to them for their steadfast commitment to him, and he desperately wants to come to their aid as soon as possible. When Jerry finally makes his return trip to Antarctica in the spring, we share Jerry’s anxiety as he searches for his lost dogs. Their reunion is dramatic and touching.
Jewish law has much to say about the treatment of animals. The Codes of Jewish Law say that if you and your animal need to eat, your animal should be fed first. We are forbidden to cause pain to an animal, and so his needs come first. Dogs, in particular, are singled out for special treatment because of a remarkable event that occurred during the time of the Exodus from Egypt.
When the plague against the Egyptian first born occurred, the Midrash records that the dogs did not bark when many of their masters died in the plague. The Talmud observes that dogs normally bark when the angel of death is in the city. During this last of the ten plagues, the angel of death was certainly around and active, so naturally the dogs should have been barking. Nonetheless, they restrained themselves that night and quiet prevailed. In recognition of this unusual animal behavior, the Midrash explains that the dogs earned a reward of meat, meaning that in future generations it is considered meritorious to feed meat to a dog. It seems, therefore, that every act, every kindness, even one done by animals is taken into account by God who rewards all of his creatures.
In Jewish tradition, acts of kindness do not go unnoticed. The Bible begins with an act of kindness when God clothes Adam and Eve after their sin. The Bible concludes with an act of kindness when God buries Moses. These events are bookends to the narrative of a people whose guide to living, the Torah, is filled with acts of kindness to those who are most vulnerable in society, the poor and the physically weak. Eight Below is a narrative about the relationship between men and dogs; but its underlying theme of gratitude, especially to those who do much good but who are unable to take care of themselves, has implications for human relationships as well.