You know the saying, one of the most popular proverbs around: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. What we mean by this is that people are set in their ways, that they reach a stage in life when they are who they are, and they will not be changing anytime soon. In fact, they will not be changing at all. The way they act, their interests, even how they think, are all, to use another saying, ‘set in stone.’
The implication of the proverb is the older we get, the harder it is to change. There seems to be some truth to this idea. When we are young we are more open to new ideas and experiences. Our views about life and the world around us are not yet fully formed. We are more likely, in our youth, to meet new people and have experiences we’ve never had before. But as we age our world in a sense becomes smaller. Our friendship circles are for the most part closed. We rarely if ever do something for the first time. Even our general sense of the world becomes jaded – ‘it is what it is,’ we say, meaning ‘it isn’t perfect, but it isn’t going to change either.’ Perhaps this is why the tradition understands that King Solomon penned the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when he was an old man, a book that contains one of the Bible’s best known verses – “What has happened will happen again, what has been done will be redone – for there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
My wife and I are the owners of an actual old dog, our loyal and trusted pooch who this year will celebrate his 10th birthday. The eager young puppy who was filled with energy, who would bound out of the house in the morning and tug you down the street, has slowed down considerably. These days he solemnly surveys the street before going out, and once outside spends time sniffing the air before deciding in which direction to walk. His pleasures are simple – to roll in grass on a hot summer day, or watch keenly from the top of the steps the street outside, or to lie quietly and comfortably on the couch as his ‘humans’ watch a bit of television. Even as I type this he has just entered the room and settled himself comfortably behind my chair, somehow keeping one eye on me while napping at the same time. If only I could learn to do that!
And yet even in his old age he has not become jaded. The world is still wondrous to him. When a new season arrives he is thrilled at the change in weather, at the new scents that waft up from the ground in the spring, at the cold winds that ruffle his fur coat in the winter. He is master of the neighborhood now, the oldest dog on the block, literally, but he loves to meet a young puppy, all bubbly energy, huge paws, overgrown ears. He’ll play with his younger compatriot, as if to say ‘here is how you do it, now go out and have fun while I lie back here and take a snooze!’ He continues to change, to grow, to study the world around him, to live in the moment. And this old dog will even, when properly motivated, learn a new trick.
One of the fundamental ideas of Judaism is that people have the capacity to change. As set in our ways as we might be, as comfortable in our shoes, to fully live life we must be open to what is new. New people, new experiences, new ideas, new relationships, new knowledge – all of these should be part of the way we grow and change, and growth and change should be a life long processes. The old proverb and King Solomon were both wrong. An old dog, when open to the world, can learn new tricks. And there are many new things under the sun, waiting out in God’s world to be discovered. As it says in the Talmud: זיל וגמור – go out and learn!