By Rabbi Bryan Opert
I am not given to sentimentality when it comes to pets.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had many in my time. In fact, for the vast majority of my life, I have had pets. From when I was a young boy, we had dogs, hamsters, birds, snakes (my favourite), fish (my least favourite) and cats — and I always loved them. However, I was philosophical when they passed away. I understood their life-spans were shorter than ours; and that they were pets, not family.
Recently we had to put down our most adorable and beloved Gigi. I cannot begin to describe the personality of this dog, who grew up with our youngest son and can easily be compared to Nana in Peter Pan. When the time came, it was my job to take her to the SPCA. I have no words to describe the care, comfort, dignity and respect afforded Gigi and me by the staff. They made me feel as if this was the only animal they were putting down that day, and her comfort — and my sadness — top priority.
Something unsuspected happened as they injected Gigi. As she slowly drifted off, tears welled up in my eyes and I wept almost uncontrollably. I couldn’t understand it — this was not like me. Nature gives and Nature takes. I had never before felt like this when a pet died.
I think I got to grips with it shortly afterwards — in the strangest way — when I was teaching a lesson about Serach. Serach was the daughter of Asher, one of the sons of Jacob. She is an extraordinary character in Jewish tradition, only mentioned three times by name in the Written Torah. However, the Midrash gives her a mystique that few non-Matriarch/Patriarchs are given. She lives in the stories of the Midrash for hundreds and even thousands of years. Not only does she live throughout the time of Jacob’s sojourn in Egypt, the Midrash places her later, at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. Bnei Yisrael are in a frenzy, collecting ‘payment’ for centuries of slavery. Moses is looking for Joseph’s burial place in order to carry his bones out of Egypt and have them reburied in the Land of Israel. (Joseph made his brothers promise to do this, and traditionally the promise was passed down). The problem for Moses was two-fold. Firstly, Joseph was the Egyptian Vizier and was therefore buried by the Egyptian leadership rather than by his family. In fact, the Midrash suggests that his body was hidden so as not to become a shrine of sorts and a place of unity for the Israelites. Also, his burial was centuries earlier. The Midrash explains though that Moses was able to ask someone who had been around at the time and had information that very few others had. This was Serach, the granddaughter of Jacob. Astoundingly — the Midrash tells us that Serach was still alive and knew where Joseph had been buried. Serach was the only one from that era, she was centuries-old.
Torah tradition then zooms through the entire biblical period to the Talmudic period. Sitting in the Beit Midrash in Israel a millennium later, Rabbi Yochanan explains that when Bnei Yisrael walked through the Sea of Reeds, the water was like walls on either side of them, and was opaque. But there is someone sitting in the Beit Midrash with him — bizarrely for that period, a woman. We are told that this is none other then Serach bat Asher. Serach is STILL ALIVE.
I would suggest that Serach is The Carrier of Memory. She bears the existential memories of the family-clan-nation, who as they mature and grow in sophistication and creativity, need someone to hold the story together without losing the thread. But the one who bears the tradition needs to be a constant — almost ‘above the story’. She is in the story, but also transcends it. She knows and speaks and directs, but remains the same throughout. When she speaks, she connects the questioner to the memory: Joseph’s burial-place or the appearance of the walls of water. She doesn’t grow with the story, she encompasses it.
I think in some way our pets are the same. I do not believe that our pets become ‘better’ or ‘more righteous’. They can learn obedience, but to become more empathetic, loving, caring, sentient beings is not their task. They bear our memories; they are the constants in the stories of our lives. Gigi was at all our simchas, she was with us through tough times, times of change, times of joy and times of sameness. She was always the same Gigi. She carried our memories with grace. She did not need to become anything more than she had been from when she was a pup. She just had to be, and in her being we could see our lives. As she passed away on the table at the SPCA, I felt the memories descend upon me in an instant, and that was overwhelming. Her job was done.