The light at death’s door Achare — Kedoshim Leviticus 16:1-20:27
My family and I chuckled when we learned the name of the new presidential pup: Bo. That was the name of our family’s dog from 1992 to 2005. My wife chose the name because of its double entendre in Hebrew and English. Bo in Hebrew is the command “Come!” a fitting name for an animal reputedly known as “man’s best friend.” Actually, we spelled our dog’s name “Beau” as a triple entendre incorporating French for a dash of pretense for a pedigree Golden Retriever, but his full name was BeauZeau bespeaking the side of every dog’s nature that is a clown. At the same time, Judaism sees another, deeper side to a dog’s nature.
The word in Hebrew for dog is kelev. Kelev is a composite of two Hebrew words: k’ meaning “like,” and lev meaning “heart.” So kelev means “like a heart.” The Hebrew word for puppy, k’lavlav, underscores the special nature of the human-canine relationship. Lavlav is onomatopoeia, the sound of a heartbeat, “lub-dub” according to the AMA. So the Hebrew word for puppy means “like a heartbeat.”
We loved BeauZeau. We had waited eight years to get him because it was so dramatic and so stunning for us to lose our previous dog, Chi.
His name was neither Hebrew (“life”) nor Chinese (the “life force”); it was Greek. My wife had named him (too) for the college sorority, Chi Omega, she belonged to when she got him. Chi was an important part of my courtship with Alice. How well I remember the evening of our first date, being greeted at the door by Alice and her little dog. Chi sniffed me as I patted him on the head, but my attentions were far more focused on the woman who would become the love of my life. As our relationship deepened, Alice informed me that I had passed an important test that first evening when she and Chi greeted me at the door. Chi had greeted Alice’s previous suitors by “marking his territory” on their legs. Not me.
Chi was a Cockapoo, a spaniel-poodle mix, a mutt, 22 pounds of fluffy buff-colored fur and bone. As he made room in his heart for me, so he made room in his heart for our first three children. But Chi grew old, his kidneys failed, and the time came for Chi to die. More precisely and far more difficult, the time came for us to euthanize Chi.
We took him to the vet. Chi never liked going to the vet, and that spring afternoon in 1984, he trembled there as much as ever. Knowing what lay ahead for Chi made me tremble inside too. Alice and I held Chi as the vet tied a tourniquet around his forepaw to raise a blood vessel, inserted the needle and pushed down on the syringe. I locked Chi’s eyes in mine and said to myself, “When his eyes go dim, I’ll know that he’s dead.”
The face of death is familiar to me, as it no doubt is to every rabbi who serves a congregation. I expected to see that familiar face of death in Chi’s eyes. But suddenly Chi’s eyes filled with light, more light than I had ever seen in anyone’s eyes. The vet said, “He’s gone.”
I believe that I saw heaven’s door open in Chi’s eyes. The light was so bright that it stunned me and reduced me to tears.
This Shabbat we read a double Torah portion, Aharei Mot-Kedoshim. Aharei Mot means “After Death.” Kedoshim means “Holiness.” Together they mean “After Death, Holiness.” My dog, like a heart, taught me how deep, how holy and how blindingly brilliant these Torah portions, in title alone, are.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)