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An Old Dog

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!pooch

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A New Year’s Eve Psalm

The dog never noticed, so intensely interested in the ground as he was, the damp grass and the smells and secrets it held.  As he sniffed from spot to spot, decoding a brief history of our backyard, what animals (and possibly people) had passed through it this New Year’s Eve, he would occasionally pause and look out into the distant darkness.  Perhaps he sensed a late night reveler, some wandering fox or deer wending its way home in the first hours of the new year.

For my part I was impatient, my mind already rushing, wanting bed and a few hours of sleep before the day dawned and tomorrow arrived.  Responsibility lay in that tomorrow, crouching, waiting for me, as sure as the daylight that would inevitably seep over the bare trees and soggy fields.  Time was already pressing, calling and whispering and rustling, even in that quiet darkness.

The dog had no such qualms.  No doubt he would have stayed out for hours, wandering, welcoming the new year in his own way, checking the various spots that he regularly inventories, keeping track in his mind of the comings and goings of other dogs in our neighborhood, the location of old scraps of food and interesting sticks that might be chewed.  He did not know that some arbitrary number had been reached, some intercalated measure of human time.  His way of sensing time’s passage is subtler and deeper.  He knows what lies ahead.  The cold days and colder nights, the chilly winds, perhaps falling snow and the quiet it brings.

Just then it was that I looked up.  The entire sky was draped in cloud, but magically a gap appeared and I could see the blackness of space.  There was the Big Dipper, just above us. Implacable, unknowable, untouchable, the infinite distance, the cold whiteness of its seven stars.  Too high for the dog, nothing to smell there, nothing even remotely as interesting as dirt and leaves and the roots of trees.  But I did pause for a moment, considering in my tired mind the majesty and mystery of this vast universe we call our home.  As deep as the earth, as high as the heavens.

Here a paraphrase of the 148th Psalm –

In praise of God, the sun and moon, the shining stars, the highest heavens;  the great ocean depths, teeming with life, the fire and hail and snow and storms;  the hills and mountains, trees, singing leaves, growing fruit;  beasts, wild and tame;  winged birds and creatures of the ground, men and women, young and old.

And this, from the 19th –

Day after day the word goes forth, night after night the story is told.  Soundless the speech, voiceless the talk, yet the story is echoed throughout the world.

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An Early Morning Singing Song

I’ve always been an early riser. Generally it is not the alarm that wakes me. Instead, there is some kind of internal ticking, a sense that the sun will soon be climbing over the horizon, the first rays of dawn, the birds chirping through our open windows, the thoughts in my head. Whatever it is I have grown accustomed over the years to being the first one up and out of bed. If you are familiar with that time of day, the grey of dawn turning to light, the shadows on the trees and houses, the world slowly but surely coming into focus, you’ll know it is a contemplative time, full of calm and possibility, of thought and reflection. There is something to be said for a quiet house, a fresh cup of coffee, a few minutes to glance at the paper or watch the rabbits in the back yard. A weighing of the day to come.

For a number of years now I am greeted first thing at the foot of the steps by our dog Brady. Loyal (perhaps to a fault) he will stagger out of his bed the moment he detects my upstairs movement, and each morning he waits for me patiently, yawning and stretching, especially extending his front paws in that way that dogs do. He knows the first walk of the day is imminent, and he is preparing, everything a ritual. He walks to the windows to consider the street. Anything interesting out there, anything we should know about before we venture out? He walks back and patiently waits for me to put on my shoes, to grab his leash, bows his head so I can hook it to his collar. Then to the door.

Shabbat is a special treat. A much quieter time, very few cars, people, other dogs at 6 on a Saturday morning. We leave the neighborhood and make our way into less familiar territory. He is intent now, reading the signs, tracking the movements of deer and raccoons, squirrels and foxes, even the occasional woodchuck. To the human eye it is invisible, but to the dog’s nose it is an open book. Here the deer stood for a few moments, munching thoughtfully on a bush. Here the squirrel stopped to gather acorns. Just in that spot a fox snuck under the fence. His nose snuffles, low to the ground, he is mesmerized by the narrative he puzzles out.

As the sun rises higher the world comes to life. A car passes. An old woman sits on her porch, smoking the day’s first cigarette. The long shadows at the foot of every tree grow shorter, the blue of the sky brighter. The old pines, the deeper woods, the worn paths where our feet have tread countless times. But the house too begins to call. Others are rising, tasks beginning, work approaching. He is disappointed when he senses my need to go back, but he knows the rhythm of his days and reluctantly he heads for home. After all there will be food there and a warm place to lie down, the comforts of civilization that are so familiar to him. And other responsibilities to fulfill. For now this one is done, but tomorrow there will be another early morning.

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What a Difference a Day Makes

Here in Maryland we’ve had a harder than usual winter, and the old man seems to want to hang on for everything he’s got.  Generally at this time of year the trees are greening and some folks have even mowed their lawns already, but we just finished a weekend that was at best miserable weather-wise.  Temperatures struggled to get out of the 30s, and it poured rain virtually non-stop for 48 hours.  Just to make sure we all know who is in charge the rain unexpectedly changed to snow mid-afternoon yesterday, and a ‘wintry mix” (this is evidently a technical term favored by weather reporters) fell into the evening.  I walked the dog yesterday afternoon, wind howling, rain, sleet, and snow coming down, about 35 degrees.  Just lovely.  If this is spring who needs winter?!

What a difference a day makes!  Just an hour ago I walked the dog, and he happily sniffed his way around the neighborhood on a lovely early spring evening.  Clear skies, gentle breezes, low 60s.  People were out, washing cars, trimming trees, actually looking for excuses to spend some time out of doors with the promise of a real spring in the air.  Even the home team won on opening day.  Go Os!  What a difference a day makes indeed.

We might say the same thing about life.  If there is one thing I’ve learned in the rabbinate it is that things can change on a dime.  One phone call, and your whole life can be turned upside down.  You can go to bed at night with everything fine in your world, and wake up in the morning with overwhelming challenges confronting you.  But the opposite is also true.  A new day can bring a change in the weather for the better.  An unexpected helping hand, a sudden realization that there is blessing right in front of you, a phone call from an old friend.  

So often it is the small things that  help to reorient our dark days.  Dark clouds do clear away.  The snow (and even the rain) does stop eventually.  Spring comes, and with it the promise of redemption.  ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ we say at the end of the seder.  A place where each soul is on a higher plane.  And on Opening Day there is always a promise in the air.  Not next year in Jerusalem, but this year, the World Series!

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