It is dark, dark, dark in the world, with occasional shining and heroic human points of light (though almost never emitted from the people who view themselves that way). Beside the catastrophe of events, there is a division between those who need to talk about them from every angle, and those who need to not talk at all. What we can agree on is this: It is a hard time to find innocent joy.
And so, with gravity and respect, on the topic of innocent joy I would like to mention my dog and Shabbos.
This is the fourth dog; each has been large, long-haired, voracious for affection, and even more voracious for food. Meals are not limited to mealtime – their definition is generous. Meals can be found everywhere at any hour: on pavement, in an open dishwasher, dropped from the table, deep at the bottom of a grocery bag in the back of the car. Mothers of small children with cookies in their hands require warning and intervention. Also, meals are not limited to food. Here, too, the definition is generous: mittens, socks, cardboard pizza boxes, typewriter paper – apparently quite tasty – and, of course, the many rocks of New England.
These four dogs never knew one another. They lived in the same house (mine), slept in the same bed (also mine), but were sequential in their arrivals and departures. Yet their similarities have gone deeper than their breed. One was a love of Shabbos.
On most Friday nights, we bring out the tall, sadly oxidized silver candlesticks my grandmother escaped with from Minsk, hiding them under her coat and riding out of town on top of a bale of hay. We bring out a silver wine cup the age of me. We bring out the porcelain plate my mother bought in Spain on her one wild solo adventure, covered with all the bright colors she never allowed on her own walls.
The challah comes out of its bag. Depending on the mood, I choose from between a few bakeries: whole wheat or white flour, free range eggs or not, honey or sugar, tiers or a single braid. Running late, or when choice is not an option, the supermarket is always reliable.
Under the kitchen table, this dog – like all the others – sleeps on her folded paws after finishing the evening meal she was meant to eat, not the one she foraged. While she digests, she dreams. Her eyes flutter, she bangs the floor with her tail, and barks at who knows what animal or intruder. In life, she is gentle; in her dreams, ferocious. It’s preferable to the other way around.
We know the Shabbos blessings down to our bones: candles, wine, challah. Sometimes it occurs to me to wonder when they began: with Genesis? When God sent a double portion of manna each week to the desert wanderers? Then it occurs to me how many aspects of life I follow without understanding their exact origins – small mandates like twice-yearly tooth checks and large ones like voting. I grew up with Friday blessings. That is enough.
The dog did, too. At the hiss of the match and the first note, one ear perks up under the table. She recognizes the melody and the last word: Shabbos. She also recognizes that this is not the bread blessing, and therefore, it’s too soon for her to open an eye.
But the wine changes that. It’s like the starting gate at the top of an Olympic mountain run. Now she opens both eyes, emerges from under the table, and shoulders her way between us. Her posture is perfectly erect and her gaze is alert, full of anticipation and barely contained patience. We live in an uncertain world, but a few things can be counted on, and one of them is what’s coming. Two blessings mean that the third, which is her favorite, will be next.
And, night following day, it always is. For us, the blessing over the bread is a brief song of joy: “Look, here we are at the end of another week, still whole in our highly fortunate home, still needing to repair the dark, dark, dark world in any way we can, but with a pause, gathering what we need in order to begin again whatever repair is possible.”
Of course, the dog doesn’t understand any of this. But it’s a brief song of joy for her, too. Here with her people, loved (unreasonably so at times), and about to be fed her own form of manna. She cherishes this piece of challah torn and passed around, and it comes to her every week if she only waits long enough under the table.
Two worlds, one blessing. She would prefer the entire loaf, but instead, I kiss the end of her nose with a crumb on it. Θ
Elissa Ely is a psychiatrist.