May 8, 2019

When I was around 8 years old, I was summoned from class to receive the terrible news that my beloved Papa (my paternal grandfather) had been hit by a bus. He was walking the streets of Nob Hill in San Francisco, and a bus failed to stop at a stop sign. The impact threw my Papa into the air, breaking just about every bone in his body.

His doctors didn’t expect him to survive; miraculously he did. But he was in a badly fractured body, and he never recovered his vitality or resilience. His nerves were shattered, prompting him to cry often and for no apparent reason. His movement was faulty and his body so frail that he spent most of his time in his bedroom and his apartment. That meant that my Nana (my paternal grandmother) also was tethered to that same apartment. Day after day, she could look out of her windows to see the bustle below: the energy of San Francisco’s Chinatown, of its downtown district, of the wharf. But she couldn’t go out to participate. She was as much a prisoner as he was.

In such confinement, there are only two possible responses. The first is to dwell on the constraints that force a house arrest, and grow embittered, angry and sad over the many activities and social opportunities now out of reach. The second possibility is to shift one’s focus, to use the space created by imagination, memory and fantasy to create a world big enough in which to thrive, despite the very real and brutal restraints. 

The choice isn’t easy, but it’s simple. We can’t always change the reality, but how we relate to that reality can change its meaning, its impact and its significance.

Jewish law illustrates this essential insight in several instances, but I’d like to highlight my favorite. Let’s imagine that you want to take your dog for a walk on Shabbat, so you’re concerned that your stroll with the pooch should accord with Jewish law. Two immediate concerns might arise: The first is that is it prohibited to trap an animal on the Sabbath. Isn’t buckling a collar and leash on a dog a form of trapping (one of the 39 forbidden melakhot/forms of labor)? How can that action be justified? The second concern is that it is prohibited to carry on Shabbat (another of the melakhot). But if you manage to get that leash and collar on your dog, you will wind up holding the handle of the leash and carrying the leash, won’t you?

Turns out that Jewish law has an answer to both challenges, and they hinge on the attitudes of the dog! If the dog resists the leash and collar, then it is a form of trapping, and it is forbidden. But if the dog (like my Molly) responds to the leash and collar by jumping with excitement, wagging her tail and running to get the collar on so she can walk, well, in that case it isn’t trapping at all, and it is quite permissible. All because of the mental mood of the dog! Not only that, but if she is happy to have the collar and leash attached, then when she leads you out of the house, halachically speaking, it is she, not you, who is carrying the leash. 

In both instances, the physical reality remains the same, but the attitude, understanding and mood transform the halachic significance of the act entirely. Attaching the leash goes from biblically prohibited capital punishment to praiseworthy — entirely because of the appraisal and emotions of the pet.

My Nana — and anyone who wrestles with chronic illness, with different abilities, in hospice, in a nursery (and those who care for them) — understands that same fundamental choice: Focus on the limits and become dispirited, or focus on the love and possibilities, and then the prison loses much of its harshness. My Nana responded to her confinement by learning how to paint miniature nature scenes, which she painted by the hundreds. All of her friends and relatives were gifted these paintings, and I now realize that they were her portals into the great outdoors. Her feet could not hike the lake country, but her mind and spirit could.

We all retain the power to choose, to surrender to our challenges and participate in imprisoning ourselves through regret, resentment, rage, or to center ourselves in the resistance-generated freedom made possible by the attitudes we cultivate along the way.

I’d write more now, but Molly just came in with her leash in her mouth. We’re choosing to go for a walk.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair and professor of philosophy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and vice president of American Jewish University. He is also the dean of the Zacharias Frankel School at the University of Potsdam in Germany, training Masorti/Conservative rabbis for Europe.

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