February 20, 2009

Walking My Dogs In Briones

I’m so angry, I could spit.

For a couple of days now, I’ve been thinking of the ways in which we practice a cultural Judaism that ignores what Christ tried to teach, when a perfect example slapped me with a citation. Do you mind if I vent a little?

This morning I took my dogs to a wilderness area not far away. It was still early and no one—not a single solitary soul—was in the staging area. I scanned it to make sure and then did something that was technically wrong. You see, the dogs aren’t supposed to be off-leash until they’re on a trail beyond a gate approximately a hundred yards from where I parked. To get to the trail—again, only a hundred yards away—I had to walk through an open field that includes a number of picnic tables and barbeque grills, where the dogs are supposed to be on leashes. Now, it seems clear to me that the reason for the rule is to prevent unrestrained pets from becoming nuisances to the people who are enjoying the picnic area. Since I was all alone, I freed the dogs and they immediately headed for the trail. They know where it is.

Twenty feet short of the gate, I stopped to pick up some poo—I’m very conscientious that way—when a cop drove up and told me to leash my animals. He then asked for my ID and told me to wait while he ran a check on it. Fifteen minutes later, I was still holding the bag of dog poo, when he cited me. I don’t know what it will end up costing, neither did he. I asked why a ticket was necessary, when at 7:30 in the morning there was no one in the park to disturb. His answer: “It’s the rule.”

I know what you’re thinking: We can’t be arbitrary about how laws are enforced—that was his point, too—but quite frankly that’s a load of…well, it’s a load of what I had in the bag when he gave me the citation. There are all sorts of laws that are arbitrarily enforced. Californians, for example, aren’t supposed to use hand-held phones while driving (now, that’s a heck of a good idea) but I’ve never seen it enforced. Yet, the more important point is this: When we’re so caught up in the technicalities of rules, rather than the intent behind them, we haven’t gotten beyond the nitpicking that Christ described as, "Strain at a gnat and swallow a camel."

Even as I vent, however, I understand the allure of having clearly defined standards to define our acts, whether they be good or evil. I, too, am seduced by the belief that our regulations can and should be enforced in all circumstances and in all places. The Mosaic Law was meant to do that and it did a lot of thinking for us in the process—going so far as to dictate our actions when one of our oxen gets stuck in the mud on the Sabbath—but Christ wants us to use our heads and hearts. He doesn't want us to be commanded in all things. His gospel sounds simple, but it’s infinitely complex. In short, he tells us to love and then He does a remarkable thing: He lets us decide how to accomplish it. The trust implicit in that is astounding. Can we do the same for each other?

Perhaps not, but I feel so much better, now. Thanks for listening.

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