Rosh Hashana brings an encounter with Henry, the four-legged guru

September 19, 2007|By Arthur J. Magida

I have met my guru. His name is Henry. He has four legs. I met him in temple. On Rosh Hashana.

Henry is a seeing-eye dog. During services, he sniffed me, stood up and pressed his head down on my knee, and sighed softly as I rubbed him firmly behind the ears, a spot irresistible to any canine. Most of the time, Henry lay on the floor in front of the seat next to me, absolutely content with his condition in the world; a bodhisattva, a Buddhist might say - an enlightened being dedicated to delivering others from their sorrows; or a lamed-vav tsaddik, a Kabbalist might say - one of the 36 righteous individuals in every generation who live anonymously and whose very existence in the world prevents its destruction. Either way, bodhisattva or lamed-vav tsaddik, Henry was here to minimize suffering, to bestow good. Not bad for a mutt.

A modest fellow, Henry came to temple with his owner, a woman who sat two seats to my right. Friendly and smiling, Linda found her way around with a cane painted with joyous Caribbean-type colors and, of course, with Henry, who was really one color - tan - but seemed to emanate a whole rainbow of hues, or maybe that was just the pleasure he was generating among the people who met him.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and the intervening 10 Days of Awe, when Jews ask forgiveness of anyone they wronged over the past year - all these can arouse a lot of anxiety. Not for Henry, who was surrounded by almost 900 praying Jews, atoning Jews, introspective Jews - Jews unsure whether God will inscribe them in the Book of Life or the Book of Death, but hoping that with a week and a half before the divine's final decision, they could sway that fateful decision.

Henry responded to all this with absolute equanimity. No praying for him; he was the answer to a prayer - Linda's prayer for mobility, for sight of a certain variety. No atoning, either: He has never harmed anyone. His life is dedicated to good, to service. Even when the shofar was blown, Henry didn't stir, not during the first long blast, or the three wailing-like blasts that followed, or the final nine short bursts that were like broken sobs. If you haven't sinned, you don't need to stir; if you are at peace with the creator, you don't need the shrill, spooky blasts of the shofar to remind you of your fear that God has every right to punish you for your rash, impudent selfishness of the past year.

Fear and trepidation do not trouble Henry, the wonder dog. He is at peace. He is content. He is serene. When the rabbi asked various people to stand for prayers in their honor - teachers, environmentalists, lawyers - Henry didn't budge when the "healers" were called. He doesn't need such honors. He is an honor. He is a lesson. He is my guru.

Arthur J. Magida is writer in residence at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is "Opening the Doors of Wonder: Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage." His e-mail is amagida2@aol.com.

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