Today I was surrounded by eight ferocious dogs and saved by the power of Torah.
I was jogging, as I often do, near Ramat Rachel, a kibbutz hotel near the southern part of Jerusalem that overlooks Bethlehem and the Judeaen hills. Usually when I run that route, I go no further than the giant statue of the matriarch Rachel who stands tall and proud with two little children clinging to the hem of her skirt. The base of the statue bears an inscription from the book of Jeremiah: “And the children shall return to their borders” (31:16), part of the prophecy about a future time when Joseph’s sons will be restored to their land. At this point, I pause for a moment to read these words about returning, and then turn around and head back north.
This is generally a route I run on Friday mornings, when I can listen to Reshet Moreshet, the frum radio station that broadcasts songs about that week’s parsha from 8-9am. I time my runs accordingly, ending at about 9am at the shuk, where I buy fresh challot for Shabbat and take the bus home. I run with several items in my back pocket: shopping list, bus pass, house key, some money, MP3 player, and a folded-up Xerox of my leyning for that Shabbat, which I review when I ride the bus back.
This week I am training for a race, so I decided to run on Monday as well. As usual, I headed to Ramat Rachel. Instead of Reshet Moreshet (which broadcasts in the mornings only on Fridays) I listened to a daf yomi shiur about how land and moveable property are acquired. Inspired perhaps by all the talk of vast expanses of land for sale, I decided to run a bit further and head into the fields behind the hotel, which contain 200 olive trees planted in concentric rows. Part of me knew I was being a little daring in running in a deserted field near an Arab neighborhood, but I was engrossed in my shiur and light on my feet, and I threw caution to the wind.
I ran to the edge of the olive grove and looked out over Har Choma until I could run no further, and then I turned around. Off in the distance I saw a dog looking at me suspiciously, but I continued onwards down the dirt path. When next I was aware of what was going on, there were several dogs in the distance all barking to one another and looking angrily in my direction. The dogs came closer. They barked louder. They came closer still, and barked louder still. Soon I was surrounded by eight dogs at waist level, all barking angrily and running alongside me.
Terrified, I remember thinking that it was most important that I not show the dogs that I was scared. I thought about a scene in the most recent Maisie Dobbs novel I read, in which the beloved British postwar sleuth thinks she is alone in an abandoned barn when all of a sudden a threatening dog rears its head. Maisie, through intense powers of concentration, manages to calm her whole body so that the dog, convinced that she is not afraid, backs off. If only I can stay calm like Maisie, I thought, I’ll be OK. Then my thoughts drifted to more frightful literary canines, the terrifying black dogs of Ian McEwan’s eponymous novel. I thought of June Tremaine’s encounter with those savage bloodthirsty beasts in the French countryside in the months after World War II, and I shivered as I always do when I think of that nightmarish scene. Unlike Maisie, I had no way of calming myself down; unlike June, I did not have a knife in my pocket. My literary imagination could distract me for only so long; how was I going to ward off the very real dogs that were surrounding me there and then in that very moment?
The Kiddushin shiur was still playing in my ears; just as I had not thought to stop running, I also did not think to turn off my MP3 or take off my headphones. If someone hands over ten animals all tied with one halter and says “acquire this,” are all of the animals acquired? (Kiddushin 27b). Dear me. Given the subject of today’s daf, I was not likely to forget myself any time soon.
The next thing I knew, a verse was running through my mind: “A beloved doe, a graceful mountain goat” (Proverbs 5:19). Surrounded as I was by dogs, I was not sure why I was suddenly beset by words about does and goats. And then I realized: This was the verse that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi used to quote when people would ask him how he could draw so close to lepers. “Do you not worry that you will get sick?” they would ask. “A loving doe, a graceful mountain goat,” Ben Levi would respond. “If Torah graces those who learn it, will it not also protect me?” (Ketubot 77b). I recited Ben Levi’s words to myself again and again: “If Torah graces those who learn it, will it not also protect me?”
Somehow inside me I sensed that with the shiur playing in my ears, I would come out of this situation OK. I thought about King David who learned that he was destined to die on the Sabbath and therefore spent every Sabbath studying Torah; so long as he was learning, the Angel of Death was unable to overcome him (Shabbat 30b). I thought about the Gemara in Sotah which interprets the verse: “When you walk it will guide you” (Proverbs 6:23) to mean that Torah protects us wherever we walk in this world (21a). Is Torah not a tree of life to those who cling fast to it? The olive trees around me swayed in the breeze, as if nodding in agreement.
Just as I was running out of sugyot about the protective power of Torah, I came to the main road at the edge of the field and saw a truck in the distance. I did not want to cry out lest I provoke the dogs, but I began waving my hands wildly in the air, and the truck turned in my direction. The dogs, seeing the approaching truck, immediately dispersed, their barks growing fainter and their heads hanging low in defeat. I thanked the driver for rescuing me, but I knew the true source of my salvation.
My heart slowed to its normal exercise pace as I made my way back down towards Derech Chevron. Next time I jog, I hope to find a running partner (or should I say a chevruta?). And graceful mountain goat notwithstanding, next time I’m sticking to the main road.