Tag Archives: mitzvah

How My Dog Teaches Me About Judaism

Meet Wally.

Meet Wally.

As a recently-engaged twenty-something, I’m learning with each passing day the importance of compromise. I don’t always get my way, and sometimes I have to do things I’d rather not for my partner’s sake. But like everyone else, I have my line in the sand when it comes to what I will and will not do.

For me, that line has always been a dog.

Erik, my fiancé, loves dogs, and left his beloved four-legged friend with his parents when he joined me in Mississippi. Ever since, he’s been longing for a canine companion. “I’m sorry,” I’d tell him, “I cannot have a dog in my house. Volunteer at a shelter if you want to, but don’t bring one home. They smell, they shed, and they’re just not for me. It’s my line in the sand.”

For a long while, Erik (begrudgingly, but generally graciously) accepted this, and volunteered at the local animal shelter to get his fix. I would see the way his face lit up when a stranger let him pet their pup, and the way his demeanor changed whenever he talked about getting one. Could having a dog really affect a person that much? I wondered.

On January 25th, 2015, I learned the answer to my questions. Erik and I took home Wally, a dachshund mix from the Animal Rescue Fund of Mississippi, as a foster dog. It was my own little experiment (could I handle a dog in the house? Would it make a drastic difference in Erik’s quality of life?) and our new compromise. I figured hey, if it works out and we adopt, then fabulous…and if it doesn’t, I would be able to say I’d given it a try, we would have done a good deed, and we wouldn’t have to keep him. No harm, no foul.

The family
The family

 Almost a month later, Wally is officially our puppy, and I couldn’t imagine life without him. Erik’s happiness has increased…and so has mine. How did I get to this point, you might ask? Well, it was a surprisingly Jewish journey, involving a plethora of Jewish values that I still work hard to embody every day.

When I look at Wally, lounging on his fluffy dog bed, I am first reminded of tza-ar ba-alei chayim, the law against the unnecessary suffering of animals. I am proud that we were able to relieve his suffering by rescuing a shelter dog and giving him a forever home.

When Wally gets excited to see me when I get home, and jumps a little too much or licks a little too fervently, I aim to be erech apayim, slow to anger. When I get territorial about sharing my bedroom with a dog bed or my kitchen with dog food bowls, I channel my nevidut, generosity. And in my small moments of doubt, when I look at the huge responsibility Erik and I have taken on, I channel my inner ometz lev, courage.

The few short weeks we have had Wally have contributed significantly to our shalom bayit, peace in the home. Caring for him has made me think about aspects of my Judaism in a new way. In Pirkei Avot we are told that one mitzvah leads to another…but in this case, as our friend Danny put it: one “mutt-zvah” led to another – from volunteering, to fostering, to adoption.

As a Jewish educator, I often challenge my students to find Judaism in everything, and because of my new Southern rescue pup, I had an amazing opportunity to do just that! Thanks, Wally, and welcome to our family.

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Posted on February 20, 2015

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“It’s The Thought That Counts” Isn’t Good Enough

“‘It’s the thought that counts’ is not a Jewish concept. What you do matters more than what you just think about doing.”

blogelul2014My mother said this at least a thousand times to my brothers and sister and me. And it truly stuck, because as I sit here pondering today’s #BlogElul writing promptDOher words are playing on a loop in my mind.

“‘It’s the thought that counts’ is not a Jewish concept. What you do matters more than what you just think about doing.”

My mother would often follow this admonition with an acknowledgmenta warning, even!that it’s often easier to think about something than do it. To think about visiting someone in the hospital, to think about showing up for the highway cleaning event, to think about attending a funeral. But that’s too easy, and not effective enough.

While people might say, shrugging and smiling and forgiving, “Hey, it’s the thought that counts,” the question is … counts for what?

To use one of the examples my mother might have drawn on in my youth: If your friend mentions she’s thirsty and you think about getting her a glass of water, but you don’t give her any water, why should that count? Pouring her a glass of water and addressing her thirst is what will actually make a difference. Doing counts.

This is what my mother would remind us, as she drove us to the senior citizens’ center to read and sing and spend time with residents there. It is what she would repeat as we went to life cycle events, happy and sad alike. It was her mantra when we volunteered at the soup kitchen as a family, when we visited a cranky relative, when we sent thank you notes for every present ever received.

And as an adult, it’s why I push myself to “do” as much as I can. I saw, time after time, how much it mattered to be there rather than to “keep so-and-so in our thoughts.” When we have the ability to actively do, we also have the responsibility.

We see this reflected throughout Jewish culture and tradition. The Hebrew word mitzvah, which we use to connote good deed, literally means an obligation. We are prescribed to celebrate with bride and groom, to visit the sickto do, to do, to do.

To actively do applies on scales both big and small. When we see an injustice, it’s not enough to notice it. We have to address it. When someone is hurting, it’s not enough to sympathize or empathize with themwe need to find out what they might need, and then whether it’s a hug or a primal scream or to be left alone or whatever, we need to do our best to actively do that.

The balance, of course, comes in the value inherent in thinking. In Jewish tradition, and in life. After all, action without thought, reckless knee-jerk responses without reflection, can be fruitless and even dangerous. I’m a pretty reflective person, and with every fiber of my being, I still want to emphasize thinking. When something challenging is on the news, I still want to ask myself what I really know, and push myself to think and listen and research before settling on what action I will ultimately take. As a first question, I want to ask others “What do you think about this?” and listen to their responses.

But I need to challenge myself, and challenge others, by posing a slightly more difficult second question… not just “What do you think about this?”, but also “What are we doing about this?”

Sometimes, of course, there is nothing we can do. Or we don’t have the ability to take action. But when we can do, we should doand despite what Yoda might have to say about it, sometimes we can at least try, and perhaps the attempt will count for something, too.

It’s not always going to be easy, but hey. Who said it would be easy? Especially when it comes to Jewish stuff? “It’s the thought that counts” is not a Jewish concept. Taking action, and doing the right thing even when it’s hard… that’s a Jewish concept cultivated right down to my core.

Thanks, Mom.

This post was written as part of the #BlogElul project. Today is the first day of Elul, traditionally a time of reflection before the High Holidays. We welcome your reflections, too!

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Posted on August 27, 2014

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Checking Your Privilege: It’s a Mitzvah

gold-cardYears ago, one of my high school teachers gave us a hint to help us spell the word “privilege” correctly. She said that it was a privilege, to have two eyes and a leg and the word itself has two “I”s and the word “leg” contained within it. That’s a simple definition of the word, as well as a spelling reminder: not everyone has a whole and healthy body and therefore not everyone has the benefits associated with health. Privilege can seem basic, but it still shouldn’t be taken for granted.

This weekend, there was a lot of discussion about Tal Fortgang’s article, “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” in The Princeton Tory.

Tal, a freshman at Princeton University, shared his legacy—a legacy shared by many Jews—of anti-Semitism, persecution and survival.

His point: while he is privileged to have benefited from the support of his ancestors, he is not going to apologize for this privilege because it was the outcome of the sacrifices made by them and on the basis of their “formidable character.”

There is so much that is problematic in his article, which has been both praised and heavily criticized. Not all privilege can be earned simply on the basis of “formidable character.” Reflecting on the spelling lesson, for instance – having the privilege of health is not correlated with formidable character. Similarly, for those Jews who are White, the color of their skin is not a reflection of their hard work. Yet, it is undeniable that sadly, at this point in time, there are benefits that are associated with Whiteness that have nothing to do with character and at the same time, there are White people and people of all races who work very hard and have great character.

But it is the last line of his piece that is particularly striking. “I have checked my privilege. And, I apologize for nothing.”

My response: “Who asked you to apologize?”

Asking someone to check their privilege doesn’t necessitate that the person apologize for having privilege. Instead, it is asking one to be aware that not everyone shares that privilege and therefore it might be worthwhile to find ways in which people who don’t share that same privilege can experience some of the benefits associated with the privilege. In other words, recognize that you have something others do not have.

Why is that so much to ask? The consequences of reflecting upon your privilege only helps a person appreciate the challenges others face to achieve similar benefits and find opportunities to minimize some of the barriers that make these benefits less accessible to people who do not share some of the privileges we have.

I believe that Judaism, the legacy Tal and I share, teaches empathy. We can learn empathy from Jewish liturgy, from Jewish history and from present day Jewish experiences. The Jewish story teaches us what happens when people don’t “check their privilege.” For many of those who persecuted Jews, they were privileged in the sense that they were a part of a majority and the Jews were a less privileged minority. Would persecution have been impacted if these majorities “checked their privilege?” I don’t have the answer to that question. But, I would argue that it is critical to empathize with people who do not share the privileges we have. As people who have seen the consequences of a privileged majority and oppressed minorities, I will posit that part of our legacy is to constantly check our privilege, to ensure that we handle it responsibly.

Maybe it could even be thought of as a modern mitzvah. Not simply a good deed, but literally an obligation.

In conclusion, may I suggest an alternative ending to an opinion piece on this topic?

I am thankful for the many privileges I have, among them, good health and a legacy of empathy and survival. I wish that everyone could say the same and I hope that I continue to check my privilege. 

What do you think?

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Posted on May 5, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy