IN ISRAEL EVEN THE DOGS SPEAK HEBREW
Rabbi Binyomin Friedman
Editor's note: One of the ways which our rabbis transmitted deep philosophical and moral lessons was through stories and parables. In Hebrew, this is called Midrash or Aggada.
Editor's note: One of the ways which our rabbis transmitted deep philosophical and moral lessons was through stories and parables. In Hebrew, this is called Midrash or Aggada. Often these stories and analogies seem exotic, esoteric, and sometimes even fantastic to the untrained eye. But with the explanation of the classical commentaries, the depth and breadth of the story is revealed. In this and future columns, Rabbi Binyomin Friedman, who has done extensive research and teaching in this area, will attempt to expose some of the deeper meanings as explained to us by our classic commentators.
Rabbi Simcha Wasserman once invited a man to learn Torah with him. The man replied that at his age it was too late to begin Torah study. He was working very hard so that his own son would have the opportunity to study. "Interestingly enough," Reb Simcha later commented, "this man's father said the exact same thing years earlier when I made the same offer to him. I would like to meet the son for whom all of this work is being done."
The Jewish community is constantly convening conferences and commissioning councils to save our youth. For some reason, we believe that only the youth can develop as Jews. This is not the view of our sages, as the following Aggada suggests:
Just as celestial night is divided into "watches", so too is the terrestrial night. How do we recognize them? In the first watch the donkey brays, in the second the dog barks, and in the third the mother nurses her baby and the wife converses with her husband. At the end of each watch Hashem roars." (Talmud Tractate Berachot 3b).
A host of insights into this statement of our sages in the Talmud have been suggested, ranging from mystical to historical. Many interpretations point to an allegorical message being transmitted in Aggadic code. One such approach is that of the Bnei Yitzchok, the famous homileticist of Wilkomir. He sees in the donkey, the dog, the wife, and the husband nothing less than the story of life itself.
This world resembles the night because its darkness obscures the divine reality. Our life in this night has three phases. The first phase is our youth, a time of boundless energy. Children at play exert themselves in a fashion that no adult could emulate. Children expend huge amounts of energy, leaving very little to show for it. This stage of life reminded the sages of the donkey - all brawn and very little brain.
As we grow, we become more sophisticated. We recognize the world around us and realize that life isn't child's play. As our childhood draws to a close, Hashem roars and we perceive the existence of a spiritual reality in this world. This causes some children on the cusp of adulthood to reflect and turn their adult desires to acquisition of spirituality. Others, either lazy or afraid, choose to ignore the call and instead dive headlong into the pursuit of material wealth - a bigger house, a better spa. They begin to resemble a dog, always begging for another pat on the head or scratch behind the ears. In Hebrew, dogs do not "bow wow" or "arf arf", they "hav hav". In Aramaic, hav means "give". (Hebrew and Aramaic are sister languages and are therefore interrelated in many ways.) The sound of the dog in Hebrew represents his unquenchable desire for more pleasure. Give me, give me. Yet this stage also comes to an end as the adult runs out of new toys or notices his energies beginning to fade. Again Hashem roars, trying to turn our attention to Him. Some ignore the call, choosing to plunge deeper into the pursuit of even more expensive toys. Others realize that it is high time to concentrate on things that really matter.
Hand in hand with this realization of the mature adult is a sense of frustration. How can I begin the quest for Hashem at this late date when my youthful energy is long lost, my adult vigor squandered? Yet even at this late stage, our sages encourage us. The end of the night, when we are weak as a baby, is also a time to nurse from the Torah, our spiritual nourishment. The quiet at the end of the night is when husband and wife can share intimate conversation. In our later years, we may have less energy; however we also enjoy peace and tranquillity as the desires and distractions of youth quiet down. This is a perfect time to engage our betrothed, Hashem, in a dialogue.
This passage from our sages teaches us that the old adage is true - it is never too late to learn. Perhaps what Rabbi Simcha Wasserman should have said was, "Stop your barking and let's start talking."
Rabbi Binyomin Friedman is rabbi of Congregation Ariel of Dunwoody. His popular Aggada class for the Atlanta Scholars Kollel is currently in its tenth year.
You are invited to read more Parshat Bo articles.
Would you recommend this article to a friend? Let us know by sending an e-mail to email@example.com