A friend of mine has two dogs. Whenever he and his wife go on vacation, they place the dogs in what is essentially a dog hotel where they will be fed, walked, and cared for while they enjoy their time off from work. Several months ago, one of the dogs died and my friend went through a genuine grieving experience. He was depressed, very mellow instead of his usual upbeat self, and generally quiet as he processed his loss. When I spoke to him, I felt that the dog was not just a dog to him, but functioned like a human friend, always there with him in times of trouble to comfort him and provide a beacon of light in dark times. The dog was a real companion that made his life more happy, more positive, and more fulfilling.
My friend’s attitude towards dogs resonated as I watched Hachi, the story of a remarkable dog who feels a special bond with its owner. Sent as a gift in a cage from Japan, the cage falls off a baggage cart leaving the dog alone and in danger. Professor Parker Wilson finds him and tries to locate its owner but to no avail. Soon he forms an attachment with Hachi and keeps him, much to the dismay of his wife Cate, who does not want a dog in the house. Cate relents, however, and soon the dog feels at home in the Wilson household.
One morning, Hachi follows Parker to the train station and returns in the afternoon by himself. There he greets his master as he exits the train station after a day at work. This ritual continues for a very long time, until Parker suffers a sudden fatal heart attack. The Wilson house is sold, Cate moves away, and Parker’s daughter Andy and her husband Michael take Hachi to live with them. Hachi, however, finds a way to return to his original home and then to the train station where he waits patiently for Parker for the next nine years. Hachi is fed by local vendors who remember his devotion to Professor Parker each day as he waited for him to return home.
Hachi is a dog story, but it is more than that. Like Aesop’s fables, animal stories are a metaphor for the human experience. Hachi reminds us to be intensely aware of the gratitude that we should show towards friends and family. Hachi is a foundling and Parker rescues him. That act of kindness has a ripple effect, remembered by Hachi for the rest of his life and celebrated by the many people who witnessed this act of loyalty and devotion by a dog.
The Talmud makes a similar point when it tells us that if someone teaches us only a single letter or a single verse, we must give that person honor. We are indebted to all those who are benevolent towards us.
In Judaism, the training ground for the nurturing of kindness is the home. It is here that the kindnesses that spouses show for each other and the kindnesses that parents show for children are locked into the family’s DNA. Here acts of kindness happen in the moment, but they transcend the moment and establish a psychological bank account for generations. The changing of a diaper, the emergency trip to the hospital, the act of giving birth all create emotional connections that are unbreakable.
At the heart of Hachi is the message that kindness needs to remembered and perhaps even memorialized. It is a dog story that tells us how important and meaningful it is to treasure the kind acts of others.