October 7, 2011 | 10 Tishri 5772
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Well, we got a new dog earlier this year. We’ve had dogs for most of our married life, but we decided not to get another dog after Laila died…until Susan began to want a new dog. Rigby is a great dog…very loving. He just turned a year old last month so he’s hardly an old dog. But there’s something I’ve noticed about Rigby.
He’s regressed a bit, forgetting some of the things he previously knew how to do. Anyone who knows anything about dogs knows that we are to blame. But still, for the moment, it looks like you can’t teach this new dog any new tricks. How much more so an old dog!
And isn’t that what most of us sitting here are? Oh, I know, there are many bulldogs sitting here. But whether we’re bulldogs, yellow jackets or something else, the majority of us are “old dogs.”
I mean no disrespect. Heck, I’m an old dog myself. An old dog isn’t defined by age. We old dogs are set in our ways and unlikely to change because, let’s face it, we’re not very open to new ways of thinking or doing. We think of ourselves as fully-developed, finished products.
Yes, we are old dogs, and you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Or can you? Well, if you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, what are we doing here?
It may be an inelegant way to put it at such a sacred time, but the exact opposite of that well known saying about old dogs is a pretty accurate statement about the purpose of these High Holidays.
Teshuvah, change, growth… You can teach an old dog new tricks! No matter who you are, how old you are or how long you’ve been doing it that way (whatever it is), change is possible. You know why? Because contrary to the way most of us think, we are not yet finished products!
This summer we went to the beach with friends. They read novels. That’s what normal people do at the beach. I read this book—Rabbi Laurence Kushner’s, I’m God You’re Not (Observations on Organized Religion and Other Disguises of the Ego).
Everything I have just said about recognizing that we can change and grow is common sense. But Rabbi Kushner elevates the meaning of change. He mentions a wonderful and challenging comment made by one of his colleagues, Rabbi Jerome Malino, of blessed memory. Rabbi Malino served a congregation, was a faculty member at the Hebrew Union College and served as president of the Reform movement’s rabbinical organization…an accomplished rabbi, to be certain.
Well into his eighties, Rabbi Malino was asked at a luncheon marking his retirement from teaching rabbinical students what he intended to do next. He rose to his feet and without hesitation, in all seriousness, replied, “I intend to continue my preparation for the rabbinate.”
In effect, Rabbi Malino was saying, “I’m not done growing. I’m not yet fully me.” In his book, Rabbi Kushner asks - From where does this notion of not yet being fully me come? He points to the beginning of the Book of Exodus…to the story of Moses at the Burning Bush (Exodus, Chapter 3). God had instructed Moses to return to Egypt, go to Pharoah and free the Israelites. Do you remember how God responded when Moses asked, “When the Israelites ask who sent me, what shall I say?” (Exodus 3)
“Ehyeh asher ehyeh” – That is what God said - “I will be what I will be.”
I don’t particularly care for that translation because I immediately want to sing “Que sera sera – whatever will be will be.”
Maybe Rabbi Kushner had the same association. He suggests another translation – “I am not yet who I am not yet.” Listen again - “I am not yet who I am not yet.” Do you get it? Even God is not yet fully God!
If so, if God is not yet fully God, why would you possibly think that you are fully you?! You can always learn and change and grow. There is no expiration date on any of those possibilities.
Most of us have great difficulty internalizing that idea. We think of ourselves as finished products. So how can we come to believe that change really is possible?
How can we come to view ourselves as people who can still grow and thereby add meaning and greater well-being to our own lives and the lives of those around us?
I think keeping three things in mind will help. First, we are children of God. We are to reflect what we believe is God’s nature. If God is not yet fully God, then none of us is a finished product! That is a realization you and I ought to embrace! If we do so, we will keep ourselves open to the possibility of personal growth.
Second, the qualities of modesty and humility help us to see ourselves as we should. They help us to understand our proper place in the world. They also help us to recognize our unfulfilled capabilities, an indication that we are not yet fully who we are to be. Yes, modesty and humility open us to the possibility of personal change.
Finally, when we see ourselves not just as individuals but as members of a community, we know that we are not yet fully ourselves. Why? Because as members of a community we know we can always contribute and make a difference. As we do so, we can grow and become more fully ourselves.
The truth is I can’t think of any prescription or combination of qualities that will serve as a complete antidote to the view that “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
The inertia of habit is awfully powerful! So you can give into it…and change nothing. Or you can harness the uplifting possibilities of these days that annually remind us about what it means to be a human being…and you can learn, you can change and you can grow…Maybe not every day and maybe not every week…But if you take up the challenge of the Holy One who effectively told Moses that God is not yet fully God and asked Moses to share that nature of the divine with the Israelites, you will be able to sit here next year and say:
- This is what I learned this year
- This is how I changed
- This is how I grew
The array of possibilities for learning, change and growth is vast. Let me suggest just three worthy directions.
Seek to become a striver. Be like Jacob whose name was changed to “Yisrael,” one who strives and struggles. Don’t be satisfied with what you know or with what you have done.
Ask more of yourself. If you do so, you will move closer to becoming more fully you!
Our rabbinic tradition suggests a second direction. The Rabbis noticed that the Ark, as it was described in the Torah, was inlaid and overlaid with gold. For the Rabbis, that quality became a symbol of the truly wise individual – a person who is the same inside and out; in a word, genuine.
Ask yourself – How can I consistently bring thought, word and deed together? Success in doing so will make you more fully you!
Finally, in the coming months ask yourself, “How can I become a stronger Ohev Yisrael, a lover of the Jewish people?”
In my expression of support for the State of Israel? In how I interact with the Jewish community and its members right here? As you answer those questions and others in affirmative ways, you will surely become more fully you!
We recently installed an invisible fence in our yard. It will protect Rigby from wandering and allow him eventually to become an old dog, one we hope will be able to learn new tricks.
But you and me? Our challenge is much greater than Rigby’s. For you and I are created in God’s image. We are meant to imitate the Holy One. “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” – modestly, I say, God may still not yet be fully God.
I know that I am not yet fully me, and you are not yet fully you.
In 5772, may we have the wisdom and strength to move closer to becoming the people we are meant to be.