Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” Martin Buber
In 2006, a 2.5 pound Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Buddy became part of our family. He was so small that he couldn’t jump onto the backyard patio from the grass where he ran in circles. Eventually he grew, and he learned to jump onto the patio and into our hearts with love and affection.
Martin Buber, a 20th century Jewish theologian, wrote, “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” Buber dedicated his life’s work to the idea of meeting the Eternal Thou (God) within special encounters between people, which he called I-Thou, where “I” is an individual and “Thou” is the one who is encountered. He taught that “all real living is encounter” because it’s during intimate conversation or shared experience that we grow in love, intimacy, and humanity. And, it’s in this I-Thou encounter with others where the Eternal Thou, God, is also met. Buber believed that God is always present, while we are sometimes absent.
Brilliantly, Buber didn’t restrict I-Thou to encounters between people. He believed that such encounters can also be had between people and animals. Though animals can’t speak or exchange ideas as people do, they have a unique way of listening, responding and communicating with us. Buber observed that animals’ eyes have the power to speak a great language.
When our Buddy was young, he created moments with us. One of his favorite games was to bring us the ball when we shrugged our shoulders and asked him, “Where’s the ball?” In a flash, he would run to find his favorite ball in his basket filled with toys. We would throw the ball down the long hallway in our house, and he would run after it like he was going for a gold medal in the Olympics. If he didn’t time it just right, he would slide on the travertine tile and bump into the door on the other end of the hallway. No matter; Buddy was young and athletic. He would return the ball, drop it on the floor in front of us, and, with an extended paw, push it in our direction to continue the game he loved.
Buddy’s eyes told us everything we needed to know about him. Even when he needed to go outside, he would sit in front of us with a pensive look on his face. We knew what it meant and he eagerly led the way to the back door where he found just the right spot in the grass. A treat awaited him inside, and he never failed to remind us if we forgot it.
Though I-Thou moments are always available, they are also fated to become I-it relationships. Buber explained that I-it relationships are the ones in which we, in the company of others, use, judge, and evaluate each other. For example, when the coffee barista takes our order, it’s often a utilitarian exchange, and no real personal moment is created. It happens with our animals, too, in moments when the ballgame ends or when we feed them according to plan and return to our work.
Last week, following a long life with the Lyon family, illness and congestive heart failure led us to know that Buddy’s life was nearing its end. In his final days, my dear wife made him happy and fed him like a king. Wagyu beef, steamed carrots, and rice replaced his daily fare, and Buddy loved it and her. When the veterinarian came to the house, he put him down with dignity as my wife held him and loved on him. Our family will miss Buddy, dearly. A part of the family, a cherished companion, a furry friend in our beds, and a faithful partner, Buddy spoke with his eyes in ways that we’ll always remember.
We all cherish our pets. They are God’s creations, too. Judaism considers kindness and love of animals to be a profoundly important Jewish value. As with any of God’s creations, when we listen, learn and know them well, we can “meet” God in shared moments. God bless the memory of all our animals who were dear to us; God bless Buddy and the ways he lived and loved with us.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.