The general content of this Torah portion records the final three of the ten plagues before the exodus from Egypt. There is a simple and beautiful allusion to this in the name itself- Bo- which is numerically equivalent to three. The first two are the locust and the darkness; the final one is the smiting of the Egyptian first born.
In the Torah literature we find many parallels between human properties and characteristics in the animal world. Sometimes animals are used as metaphors, other times certain observable behaviors are singled out as moral instructions. This week’s Torah portion we find a puzzling reference to animals inserted in the middle of the exodus episode.
Pharaoh represents tremendous audacity. But after the last plague, he was broken, loses his previous audacity, and the Jewish people are finally able to leave bondage. The animal that usually represents this same “chutzpah” is the dog. Dogs are described as bold creatures. They will fearlessly attack creatures many times their size. In fact, the word dog in the Torah, kelev, is an acronym for kulo leiv, “all heart.” Whereas the quality of holiness is to be satisfied, dogs represent the opposite trait, as Isaiah (56; 11) states “dogs are bold of spirit, never satisfied.”
Yet at times boldness can be positive. Indeed, to overcome many of the obstacles in this world one has to be bold. We find a great biblical figure whose name actually means dog. Calev is one of the princes of tribe of Judah, the good spy who was loyal to Moses, and to the mission of Israel. For Joshua it was clear he would side with his mentor. But for Calev it was a greater feat. After the other spies inspired fear in the hearts of the nation, the Jewish people turned toward Calev to see how he would react. It was unclear whose side he would take. In a bold move, he pretended to confirm their hesitation, and then dramatically shifted into a display of encouragement. For this, he is described as being “faithful to the faithful one (to Moses.)” (Incidentally the numerical value of this phrase is exactly six times the word dog- signifying the full spectrum of this three letter word.)
After the tenth plague, we find a very unusual, seemingly irrelevant, statement about the dogs. When the first born were being killed no dog barked (literally “no dog sharpened its tongue to bark against the Jewish people- Exodus 11; 17). We can further appreciate this statement in light of a famous saying in the Talmud, that dogs have some supernatural talents to distinguish what force has entered the scene of our surroundings: They are especially sensitive to the angel of death. When the angel of death enters the city, dogs begin to cry. On the other hand, if dogs are very excited and happy, it is a sign that Elijah the prophet is near. In fact the word dog has the numerical equivalent of the name Elijah (52).
Thus, dogs possess a special consciousness to recognize and distinguish between beings.
Normally dogs cry when the angel of death enters the city but in this case remained quiet, helping the Jewish people to leave that negative context. They were partners in the Exodus. Was there a reward?
There are two main indications. The first is expressed in a later verse, relating a law that when one has a piece of traif (not kosher meat), one may not eat it but should “give it to the dogs.” The verse could have been more succinct and just communicated the law that one may not eat this meat, but may still derive benefit. Why single out dogs here? The Sages say that this mention is a reward for their remaining quiet during the tenth plague.
There is another deeper discussion of their reward referencing a collection of verses that are linked to animals, where every creature is given a specific psalm. The highest of these is called the “The song of the dog” The Sages ask “how do the dogs merit singing this most beautiful song?” The answer: their participation in the Exodus.
The song reads “Come let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before G-d our Maker.” (Psalms 95;6). The first word is reminiscent of the title of our parsha. The prostration mentioned in the verse symbolizes the quality of selflessness, and acknowledgement of one’s master. Dogs know their master more than any other animal. They are loyal. It is fitting then that this becomes “the song of the dog” as it is the song of loyalty and allegiance to one’s master, a lesson to us all.