Family Matters: Elijah on Four Legs
On a chilly Seder evening, an unconventional holiday guest helps a family expand the mitzva of feeding the hungry to all creatures in need.
The second night of Passover was unusually cold and miserable.
A strange winter storm had blown through the day before, leaving a carpet of snow on the newly greening grass and waiting-to-bloom tulips. We saw yellow daffodils with bent heads under the heavy snow, and we shook our heads in dismay at the cruel joke nature had played for this spring festival.
My family, along with a visiting family from Toronto, were among the last to leave the synagogue after celebrating the Seder there.
As we stepped out into the chilly night our attention was drawn to a small creature huddled in a corner outside the door. It was a springer spaniel, full-grown but thin and pitiful in its cold, wet misery. There was dirt on its underside and some injuries to its paws. It looked up at us with a blank, bleary stare.
The man from Toronto went to his car and produced an old quilt that he wrapped around the dog. By this time a crowd was gathering, everyone wondering what to do. Barely able to walk, the animal would struggle to its feet, take a few steps, veer to the left and flop back down again.
“We can’t just leave him here,” some people murmured.
Then my daughters, Rebecca and Amy, chimed in: “Can’t we take him home, just for the night?”
Before I realized what I had agreed to, the dog had been loaded, dirty quilt and all, into the back of my station wagon.
“Why am I doing this?” I thought. But out loud I only said, “He’s not allowed out of the laundry room. It’s only for one night.”
My husband, david, and i love animals, but we are content with our cat (who does not tolerate having other animals around).
Both of us want to be free to travel, and I didn’t wish to be saddled with the responsibility of a dog, much less a sick one. With these thoughts in mind, I drove home with David while Rebecca and her husband, Brian, went to buy dog food.
Amy, who was 29 at the time, sat in the back of the car cooing to the dog. Always one to find special meaning, she declared that we had fulfilled the true spirit of the Seder by inviting home this dejected creature.
In the Passover Haggada, we read “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” she reminded us. And so the dog—we dubbed him Elijah—came into our house to be fed.
Elijah is the prophet who, according to legend, visits every Jewish family during the Seder. We leave a special cup of wine for him on the table. His mission is to remind us of the messianic time to come.
In some stories, Elijah is also known as a guardian angel, healer of the sick and heavenly emissary. He is said to appear as an ill, crippled beggar wrapped in dirty rags as a reminder that we should care for the needy. Our Elijah was certainly the animal incarnation of this bedraggled vision.
At home, rebecca dished out the food and the dog ate hungrily. “Don’t give him the whole can at once,” advised Brian. “If he was starving, his stomach can’t hold too much.”
It worried me that he would not drink water. He stumbled around the laundry room and then sat in the water dish.
Finally, Amy (whom we now call the “Dog Whisperer”) calmed him down. She gently stroked his head, and he looked up with grateful bloodshot eyes, curled up on the old quilt and fell asleep. My heart was warmed.
Early the next morning, I hurried down to the laundry room to see what Elijah had been up to during the night. Other than a few wet spots, some scattered newspapers and towels and a rather pungent odor that permeated the room, nothing had changed. Elijah was happy to finish the rest of the can of dog food, but still would not touch the water.
“Is hydrophobia a symptom of rabies?” I asked Rebecca.
“Why did I bring this sick animal home?” I wondered for the hundredth time.
We all kept washing our hands after we touched him. The dog was not aggressive; he never uttered a sound and spent most of his time asleep.
At 9 A.M., I phoned the local humane society. A recorded message informed me that they did not take or find homes for stray animals. They advised calling animal control—the pound!
That was the last place we wanted to take Elijah, but what alternative did we have? None of us was prepared to take care of him.
Rebecca loaded Elijah once more into the station wagon, and we drove the short distance to the pound. A man helped bring him inside and estimated he might be about 12 years old.
“All we can really do for him is advertise in the paper that he is lost, wait a week for the owners to claim him, then put him up for adoption,” he said. “We’ll give him some arthritis medicine, but that’s all.”
We did not have to be told that chances were pretty slim that anyone would want to adopt a 12-year-old arthritic dog. Glumly, we turned to leave. Elijah had already been led away to cage 22; there had been no chance to say goodbye.
As we opened the door to leave, the phone rang. The man at the desk called out to us, “Ma’am, the owner of the dog just called. They live on Lee Drive.”
The street was just across from the synagogue. Somehow this crippled dog had hobbled several blocks, crossed a busy street and ended up outside the synagogue door.
We were overjoyed when we realized that Elijah had escaped almost certain death and would be reunited with his rightful owners.
Now relieved, we had many questions: What was the dog’s real name? (We later found out it was Jacob. He was actually 14 years old—that’s 98 in human years.) Why had he appeared at the synagogue during Passover? How had he crossed the busy street? Why had the owner called just as we were walking out the door of the pound?
Seeing my children’s compassion had stirred something in me. Knowing that they did not turn their backs on the suffering of a living creature despite the inconvenience inspired me to be a better person. Amy was right; we had fulfilled a central mitzva of the Seder. Elijah had come to show us how truly blessed we are.
A dog isn’t the usual Passover visitor; the traditional enjoinment to open our home to the hungry refers to human guests. Nevertheless, it all seemed to fit. It was bashert.
Rebecca thinks the dog really was the prophet Elijah, come to deliver a message to us. But what was the message? She says we will eventually find out. I think I already know.
Beth Cook is a piano teacher, Jewish-community worker and volunteer in Bay City, Michigan.