Friday, February 7, 2014

A Walk in the World with Reb Shmerbel: Lessons from a Small Brown Shih Tzu


Chasid One: What was most important to your Rebbe—his Torah Study, his dveikut, his Cleaving to God, his Tsedakah, his righteous giving of charity, or his Gemilut Chasadim, his Good Deeds in the World?
Chasid Two: What was most important in the World to my Rebbe was—whatever he happened to be doing at the moment. For whatever he was doing, he gave it his most concentrated attention, as though his very life depended on it—even when he was merely tying his shoelaces.

            There are rabbis, and then, there are Rebbes. A Rebbe is any one, human, animal, or inanimate object, that teaches us how to live, how to appreciate what is happening to us while, we are In the Moment; they show us what is really important. When we are in a funk, or rejoicing, they show us a Glimpse of Eternity. They cut through the pettiness, the harsh clanging of our daily lives and offer us a Moment of Soulful Silence, so as to better take stock of, and appreciate, this brief sojourn which we call Life, this passage between the World Before and the World-to-Come.
And so it happened, this Erev Shabbat, this Eve of the Holy Shabbat, when I, with papers to grade (always) and a myriad of other things to do, took Kirby for a walk, so he could Do His Business.
            We all do things for the animals in our lives, these little creatures who share our destiny for a given period; they are great teachers. Kirby is a rescue; we know nothing about his past, though we could divine from his early behaviors that it was painful and difficult. When B and I visited Shih Tzu Rescue in Davie, FL, we witnessed a parade of adoptable Shih Tzus, noble little beasties who had, in some way, been damaged by cruel or neglectful people: there was Sheridan, a dignified young fellow who sat on my lap; he had enchanting blue eyes—can you imagine?—but never made eye contact; he looked clear past me: was he recovering from some form of doggy Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder? I could not tell, and Sheridan was silent. There was Webster, a strapping, bold fellow who sat confidently on my lap, as brave as any Temple Guardian (Shih Tzu means “Lion Dog,” and that was their original purpose, to protect Chinese Buddhist Temples from Evil Spirits), but, while I stroked his upright throat and deep chest, could feel him growling softly as he looked down at his fellow dogs—and who could take responsibility for an Attack Shih Tzu? There was Courtney, who bounced and leapt, always ready for play, perhaps ideal for a young family, but a bit too hyper for B and me.
            Finally, there was Kirby—his name was Hershel at the time, a homage to his Hershey-Chocolate color, a rarity among the breed. He was a shy little fellow, smaller and lighter than his contemporaries, though he was highly sociable, and joined in happily with the mutual nose- and tush-sniffing that is their style of greeting. But when we lifted him up, he settled down in our laps immediately, as though telling us, “I choose you, and you. The business is done. Give these nice people their money, and let’s all go home to my new house.”
            And so it transpired, a couple of weeks later. We changed his name to Kirby, commemorating either the 1950s vacuum cleaner or the pickle; we’re not sure. But, like most Shih Tzu people, we have adapted our homes and lives to accommodate this little bundle of brown fur, with his quirks and quiddities.
            Kirby is my rebbe, too: he keeps me grounded. I may gaze heavenward at our wide Florida skies when we are out walking together; he is a creature of earth, as brown as its trees and loam, and he is always sniffing for evidence of his co-canines, ready to leave puddled evidence of his Having Been Here: a sort of doggy fame. Watch your step, he says, the World is beautiful, but dangerous. Pay attention!
When noises come from behind a fence, he stands at gaze—not because he is courageous, but because he knows, with Dave (he calls me Dave, and, yes, he knows that he’s adopted) at the other end of the leash, he is protected. When you are out in the World, he is telling me, bring your friends, and Be Careful.
            Kirby, like the unnamed rebbe above, teaches me not to be like the rider who leapt on his horse and rode off in all directions: when you are doing something, give it your fullest attention, whether it be looking for a Place to Poop (we do carry bags, and wish that everyone else did), a corner to salute, or a potential comrade to discuss his People with. He does not “heel”; he tends to wander off, and we are the May Pole in which he tangles the leash. Focus on the Task at Hand, he counsels, to the exclusion of everything else.
            When it is time to return home, Kirby does not mind. It is time for him to tell Beaver of his exploits. Beaver is a favorite toys, a flat rag, really, whom Kirby carries around in his mouth, sounding the squeaker like a small Stutz Bearcat. Beaver is his Best Friend in the World, his Chavruta, the one to whom he communicates his Deepest Doggy Thoughts. Where Kirby is, there must Beaver be. The time I accidentally ran Beaver through the wash with squeaker within was tragic: Beaver no longer squeaked; he squirted, and we traversed the neighborhood pet stores high and low until we could find a Substitute Beaver, which Kirby gravely accepted, with a warning to me not to let it happen again. Acquire thyself a Friend, he says to me silently, one to whom you can tell your deepest thoughts.
After the walk, Kirby must take a nap. He is a Low-Energy Dog, a fact we all celebrate. Shih Tzus do not herd; they are Companion, Non-Sporting Dogs, and if you shoot a duck, they will show no interest in retrieving it for you; they will be on a pillow, back in the Hunting Lodge, probably ensconced before the fire. They rarely fetch, though they love to skid about on carpet or marble floors in search of their favorite toy, and may do this as many as three times before they look at you archly and retire to their bed or pillow. They are the most cat-like dogs I know. Kirby will do his little Doggy-Chasidische Dance, for a treat, and he can Lie Down. Sleeping is another favorite pastime, but he knows that he must leap up at a second’s notice if Mommy gets up. He is a Mommy’s Boy, through and through. Whatsoever thy hand findest itself to do, says Kirby, do thine utmost. Didn’t King Solomon, wisest of men, who spoke the language of men and animals, say that?

            “Focus, Dave, Focus!” Kirby tells me. His Hebrew name is Shmerbel ben Berbel, which I interpret as “Guardian of God in the World, son of Little Bear of God.” He is more Teddy than Grizzly, but he is also dedicated to protecting His People, which is an admirable Jewish trait. I am proud to call him one of my Rebbeim.