ONE OF GOD’S BEST [FRIEND] CREATIONS
By Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank
In spite of the age-old tradition of inviting guests to the sukkah, one guest will not be showing up in the Rank sukkah this year: our dog, Coco. After 14 wonderful years, we had to put Coco to sleep. You might think it odd for a dog to make it into a rabbi’s column, but she’s given me a load of sermonic material over the years. To pass over her death in silence would seem an undeserved slight and unwarranted thanklessness.
Coco figured prominently in a number of Passover sermons. The issue had to do with hametz (leavening) in an item whose edibility was borderline. The rabbis said that if the item is lo ra’ui la’akhilat kelev, unworthy of a dog’s palate, then one needn’t get rid of it. Coco, lacking even a shred of gastronomic discretion (she ate anything!), taught me that most of these questionable items deserved to be thrown out. It was, I thought, a memorable sermon.
Coco was centrally featured in a talk on Jewish courage in the face of relentless anti-Zionist and anti-Israel attacks. The Jewish affinity for shalom, peace, often keeps us from asserting our rights and demolishing the bigoted and hateful sentiments flung in our direction. Coco was forever teaching the family how to handle big, ferocious dogs. This 20 pound light-weight would take on the likes of a St. Bernard, German Shepherd or Great Dane—growling, snarling, and yapping viciously. It was occasionally embarrassing when trying to welcome guests into the home. But the big dogs, sensing the resolution of puny Coco, would back off. They weren’t going to tussle with anything that evinced such conviction. The Jewish people should take note.
Coco also helped explain the function of ritual. On Friday nights, she positioned herself near the kitchen table, listened to kiddush, lined up with the family for netilat yadayim [the ritual hand washing], and then barked authoritatively after ha-motzi, reminding us that she needed hallah. She loved hallah. Her participation in the ritual bound her to us as routine participation in a sacred rite binds all those who enact it. These days, it’s difficult for the family to say ha-motzi without sensing her absence in a keen way.
In her latter days, her appetite diminished precipitously. The very last food she would nibble on was hallah, and when she stopped eating that, we knew the end was near.
Over the years, I have been approached by people distraught over the death of a pet. What to do? Kaddish? Keriah? Shivah? It may seem preposterous to engage in any such rituals for an animal, but the pain felt with the death of that animal is real, and Judaism would not permit us to ignore the pain of any human being. And so we had to improvise some ritual for the purpose of closure. We wrapped her in a colorful fabric patterned with jumping, happy puppies. We recalled some of the funnier episodes in her life. We mentioned her love of chicken soup, matzah balls, and her favorite holiday—Sukkot. Then Shuli and Jonah placed the earth around her and over her, almost tucking her in for a long night. That’s a vision I’ll never forget. And so we paid tribute to our best friend.
I suspect that sitting in the sukkah without Coco will, like ha-motzi, bring back a rush of memories about her. That’s okay. Sukkot is so much about nature and the beautiful world which God has created for us—why not ponder such an important part of God’s natural world, the animal kingdom! Like the mountains and the foliage, our pets are also symbols of God’s creative powers. Our pets have their own niche in this world that God has created. The last verse in the book of Psalms is—kol haneshamah tehallel Yah—Every breathing thing gives Praise to Yah [a name of God]. Coco did so in her own way, as do all of our pets. That final verse in Psalms ends with Halleluyah [Praise God]. We praise God for the animal life that populates this world—it’s one of God’s best creations!
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