One of the most important spiritual byproducts of religious holidays is the charity they produce from religious folk who feel the special urge to share their blessings during the times of joy marked in their sacred calendars. Muslims give zakat, charity, with great zeal and love during the sacred month of Ramadan. Christians are similarly moved during Christmas and Easter.
From sundown Sept. 29 to sundown Oct. 1 is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It ushers in not just a new Jewish year (this year is 5780) but 10 days of repentance and charity culminating in Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and prayer from sundown Oct. 8 to sundown Oct. 9.
I thought that I would use my weekly column to encourage you to support one of my favorite charities, The Guide Dog Foundation. Wherever you live, there is a Guide Dog charity near you that needs your help. My pitch is particularly appropriate now not only because of the Jewish High Holy Days, but because September is National Service Dog month.
My wife, Betty, and I have raised several puppies for our local place, The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, (371 E. Jericho Tpke., Smithtown, NY 11787-2976; 631-930-9000 or 800-548-4337). We were called puppy walkers. We received recently weaned 8-week-old Labrador retriever puppies and socialized them with tons of love and lots of walks through the mall and in crowded places to get them used to a world crowded with humans. When the dogs were 14 to 18 months, we would return them to the foundation so that professional trainers could complete their training and so that visually impaired clients could try out each dog to see which one fit their gait and needs.
People always ask me, "How could you give up the dog after a year of loving it?" The answer is easy. We gave up the dog so that a blind person could receive the dog. That joy was more than enough to compensate us for our loss. Plus, some of the dogs fail their training and if they do, they are offered back to the puppy walkers as a permanent pet.
Our first guide dog, Topper, was a flunk-out and became our loving pet. He was a cat chaser, which is not a desirable personality. I will admit that I had become protective of Topper's reputation and when they told me of his cat-chasing I angrily responded, "Well, what kind of cats do you have around here?"
One of our dogs that made it through was a black Lab named Lucky. We were invited to his graduation ceremony, though we had to watch it through a one-way mirror. The trainers did not want Lucky running over to us and away from his new companion, whose name was Isaac Alfasi.
We had a chance to talk to Isaac without Lucky, and I asked him if he was Jewish and he said, "Yes, I am." I asked him if he was related to the Rif, Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, who was a famous medieval Algerian rabbi (1013-1103) and who wrote the first code of Jewish law (sefer ha-halachot). A code is a systematic topical list of all the conclusions of the rabbis in the Talmud without their lengthy and often distracting discussions. It greatly influenced the code of Maimonides.
He said to me, "Rabbi Alfasi was my ancestor." I was stunned. It was an emotional day, and I started to cry. I told him, "I am also a rabbi, and my wife and I raised Lucky. I am so happy that he is going to an ancestor of the great Rabbi Alfasi. Your ancestor helped me to see Judaism in a new way for the first time. Now, after almost a thousand years, I am able to repay him by helping you to see the world in a new way for the first time. The name Lucky in Hebrew is mazal and it is the perfect name for your new companion." We hugged.
There is a saying by the rabbis that a good deed produces a good deed. I don't think they imagined that it might take a millennium to close the circle of goodness.
Please consider becoming a puppy walker and/or a contributor to your local Guide Dog foundation. It costs more than $50,000 to train one guide dog; the visually impaired people who receive a new life because of these loving furry companions pay nothing. Becoming a puppy walker is a concrete act of goodness you and your children can do together.
And you don't have to wait for a holiday.
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.