I value loyalty in “man’s best friend” or “God’s best friend” – Abraham my friend is God’s description of Abraham (Isaiah). I understand that the reading of Akedat Yitzhak was chosen to emphasize a moment of extreme loyalty as zehut avot, a credit for our ancestors’ – Abraham and Isaac – superloyalty, to counterbalance our much-failed loyalty to God, to our fellow human beings and to our better angels that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur make us face. But after my summer trip to Alaska and my meeting with a champion dog sled racer from the Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome, I think I definitely prefer the loyalty shown by our ancestor in arguing with God about Sodom, than in Abraham’s silent and immediate obedience in consenting to sacrifice his son Isaac.
What I learned in Alaska about loyalty regards of sled dogs – actually no longer pure-bred Huskies, but mixed mutts. They are trained for strength, sociability with other dogs on the team, zealous competitiveness and of course obedience to their Mushers, which is a term derived from the French marchier. In packs of 16 they must drag their owners for nine to 15 days across 1,049 miles (1,688 km) on March 1 whether the weather is 50 degrees below or 50 degrees above, whether on snow and ice in a storm or in mud on a sunny day. Their loyalty is based not on authoritarian obedience or on stimulus conditioned to the musher’s voice, but on a response to the love and care showered on them by their owners. In fact women mushers have run many of the recent races and they in particular nurture their dogs like children. For example, in the Iditarod – men and women owners – march their dogs pulling their sleds for six hours at a stretch, then the dogs take a six hour break while their owners give them a masseuse’s muscle rub on each paw and on their shoulders as well as feeding them. That is 16×4 paws twice a day. Further the owners prepare gloves to protect their paws and change the wet ones at every stop. It is no surprise that the owner gets only 1½ hours of sleep in each 12-hour cycle, but the dogs get five hours each.
Most important for our consideration of Abraham’s notion of loyalty is how the owner identifies a lead dog that is smart as well as obedient. He or she must lead without being distracted by rabbits or other dogs or snowmobiles. The lead dog sets an example for the other dogs and must also identify the path even when caught in snow storms or fog with almost no visibility. When the owner is in trouble, the dogs show courage and loyalty in getting them back to civilization for medical care whatever the weather conditions. Most important the loving owners often speak in awe of dogs who are intelligent and strong-enough willed enough to refuse a direct but inadvertently dangerous order. In a snow storm mushers have instructed the lead dog to march forward, but the dog has refused. Hours later, when the snow clears, the owner found he or she was on a cliff and moving forward would have been disastrous.
By contrast in the novel Shogun the war lords are served by Samurai who are tested by being told to jump over a cliff and they prove their unconditional obedience by doing so. One Shogun ordered his son to go and find his grandsons and kill them for the Shogun. However the Shogun had hidden them in advance. His son returned in shame and offered to commit suicide since he could not carry out the order. Only then did the Shogun congratulate him and return his sons to him.
God tested Abraham in the land of Moriah, as did the Shogun, to test his absolute loyalty, though God had hidden a ram to replace Isaac at the critical moment after Abraham’s loyalty has been proven. But I prefer God’s test at Sodom when Abraham was told about God’s plan to wipe out the wicked city and Abraham brought up moral objections to God’s plan in the name of God’s own role as Judge of the Whole Earth. That was a sign of Abraham’s critical loyalty, the kind a lead dog ought to show. He knew, as the lead sled dog did, that the point of God’s orders was to advance a cause in this case on the path of justice, a covenantal partnership of humans and God. A loving God is not intentionally going to destroy Abraham, his son, his relationship with his wife in the name of blind obedience. The dog and Abraham could see ahead in the whiteout when the owner of a sled is blinded by snow and God seemed to be blind to the implications of his order.
When the musher or God looks for loyalty it may be of different kinds – the follower, the support dog, is essential, but some of his qualities are different than the lead dog. In Breshit Rabbah 30(10) the Rabbis contrast Noah and Abarham as two different kind of righteous men. In Gen 6:9 “God walks with Noah, while in Gen 17:1 God says to Avraham: “walk before me.”
Rabbi Yehuda – It is analogous to an official who had two sons –one big and one small. To the small one he said: walk with me. To the big one he said: come walk before me. So to Avraham who had good capabilities (kocho yafeh),” God to Avraham: “walk before me.” (Gen 17:1). But to Noah whose capabilities were deficient (kocho ra), it says: “God walks with Noah” (Gen 6:9).
Thus for Rabbi Yehuda God is a great educator, encouraging independence (according to one’s abilities) so as not to overburden one whose abilities are limited. Walking “before” is an adult characteristic of self-sufficiency and initiative taking. But at times God and the musher need even more help.
Rabbi Nehemia says: It is analogous to the king’s friend (ohavo) who is stuck in thick mud. The king notices, sees him and says: Before you sink into the mud, come with me as it says: “God walks with Noah” (Gen 6:9).
To whom is Avraham analogous? To the friend of the king who saw the king walking in dark alleys, noticed his friend and began to shine light into the window. The king noticed him and said: If you are already shining the light for me from the window, why not come and shine the light before me [on my path]. So the Holy One said to Avraham: If you are already shining for me in Mesopotamia and its environs, why not come shine light before me in Eretz Yisrael.
For me it is not the Abraham of the Akedah, but the Abraham of the debate about Sodom who might be able to lead us in a dark and confusing world to emerge from the mud in which we and even God who seeks to govern this world are mired. We need a lantern dog to lead us in white or a blackout. That would be my notion of “man’s very best friend” and of God’s best friend so we can pursue God’s path of justice and loyalty.