Jewish Culture

The Dog that Doesn’t Bark

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Sherlock Holmes, one of the greatest literary characters of all time, was famous for his power of observation. The many stories in the Holmes canon are filled with examples of the great consulting detective putting this skill to work. He would infer things like a man’s financial status from a forgotten hat, or his profession from the condition of his front steps, all by simply keeping his eyes open.

But Sherlock Holmes didn’t limit his observations to things he saw—he also learned much from the things he didn’t see. A famous example of this can be found in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”:1

Detective Gregory: Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?

Holmes: To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

Gregory: The dog did nothing in the night-time.

Holmes: That was the curious incident.

Thus, “the dog that didn’t bark” entered the English language as a byword for something more conspicuous by its absence than by anything specific about the thing itself.

As Jews, we like to do good. In the words of our Sages, we are by nature rachmanim and gomlei chasadim, compassionate and kind. There are many cases where the need for communal assistance is obvious, such as after an untimely death or in a clear case of medical need. When the need for help is transparent, the Jewish community generally rallies and swings into action.

But what happens when it’s not so obvious? Symptoms of distress are not always self-evident. When we look out for the welfare of our brothers and sisters, are we also looking for signals that lie beneath the surface?

A famous tale is told of Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, the Beit HaLevi, in which a man asked him if one could use milk for the four cups of wine on Passover. The rabbi understood the question asked, but more importantly, he also understood the question not being asked. Clearly this man was in dire financial straits if this was the type of question he was asking. The Beit HaLevi understood that his true responsibility in this case was not simply to answer the surface question, but rather to alleviate the man’s financial stress. This is an example of listening more to what wasn’t said, rather than to what was.

Once we become attuned to listening, we become more sensitive to hearing these silent cries for help. In recent decades, awareness has grown within various professions, and efforts have been made to improve both active listening skills and attentiveness to unexpressed signs of distress. Indeed, the hallmark of a good medical diagnostician has always been the ability to see things the patient himself couldn’t articulate. Shouldn’t we as a community try to employ similar steps to improve our mission of tzedakah and gemilut chasadim?

This all sounds great, the reader might argue, but how does one look for something that can’t be seen? The answer is by employing the same analytical tools we’ve already practiced for centuries: thinking. Drawing inferences. And by caring enough to notice. 

Do you know someone who used to rush out of shul in the morning to go to work but now seems to have a lot more time? At your school’s annual fundraiser dinner, is someone missing whom you’ve been seated with in years past? If your shul raises funds by periodic appeals or by auctioning aliyot—have you noticed a former participant suddenly gone quiet?

Surface feelings can be deceptive. Many in our community are even more reticent about family problems than they are about financial difficulties. Yet my experience has been that when someone approaches a friend to ask confidentially if there’s a problem, the invitation to talk is often gratefully accepted.

But it’s intrusive, one might object. It could be perceived as being nosy. That is precisely the point. Showing concern for the wellbeing of our friends and neighbors is not the same as interfering with their business. Moshe Rabbeinu taught us as much. Surely it would have been the easiest thing for him, upon seeing a Jew attacked by an Egyptian, to have simply closed his eyes, reasoning that it was not his business. Yet he did not take that approach. Indeed, although on the surface a failure to show interest might appear like respecting one’s privacy, on closer inspection, it can indicate a simple lack of concern for others. It comes close to the philosophy of  “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours”—an attitude described by some of our Sages (Avos 5:13) as the characteristic of Sodom. If, after being approached, an individual makes his desire to maintain his privacy clear, then that certainly should be respected. But staying away out of fear of being perceived as intrusive has never been the Jewish way.     

Another way we can improve our detection skills is by broadening our field of vision. I began with one example from literature, so allow me to illustrate this point with another, this time from the classic children’s series, The Great Brain.

When the need for help is transparent, the Jewish community generally rallies and swings into action. But what happens when it’s not so obvious?

In one story, quite poignantly told, a Jewish peddler in the late nineteenth century named Abie Glassman from the town of Adenville, passed away. It emerged that he had died of malnutrition, and no one had seen it coming. The Fitzgeralds, the protagonist family in the series, recognized their own and the collective guilt of the town in not preventing Abie’s death. As Papa (the narrator) explained, “It isn’t that we dislike Jews or mean to be unkind to them. It is just that we don’t worry about them the way we worry about other people.’” When Abie had stopped buying groceries, no one inquired. When he fainted several times, no one insisted he see a doctor. “But Abie was a Jew, and so nobody worried about him. May [G-d] forgive us all.”

The widow, the orphan, the visibly ill, even those in chinuch or in kollel, are often well-supported by institutions or wealthy patrons. There are many funds and gemachs, both communal and private, geared toward these demographics, and the individuals in question are usually well-informed as to how to access these resources. But what about the average working man who is laid off? The office worker, the plumber, the guy behind the counter in the pizza shop who is no longer working? The salesman who lost his accounts? The unemployed attorney? Who is looking out for them?

In the Great Brain story, one of the onlookers asked why Abie didn’t just ask for charity. “Papa answered, ‘Abie chose to die with Jewish dignity instead.’” We cannot wait for people to ask for help. Working people especially are accustomed to supporting themselves. They are used to being givers, not takers, and find it incredibly difficult to ask for assistance, even if they really need it. Furthermore, even when asked if help is needed, they would likely decline. The objective in such a case is not only to determine who might need assistance, but how to make sure they get it in a dignified way.

Some of the challenges in this regard are caused by modern-day improvements. Today there are government programs and food kitchens that help people with basic food staples, such that the most obvious signs of distress are usually unseen. Moreover, people in economic stress do not walk around in wooden bankruptcy barrels (and of course, never did) as though life was a Community Chest card from Monopoly. This does not absolve us of our responsibilities—it only makes them greater. The fellow living right next door to you might be out of a job, without you even knowing it.

Nothing I have said here is new, and many more examples can be brought to illustrate this principle in action. Filled with so many wonderful people and institutions, our broader Jewish community is incredible. Every one of us would step up without being asked, if we only knew help was needed. Let us try to be more aware, then, of those who might need assistance but aren’t asking. It just might be somebody close to home. 


1. Collected in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

A. Schreiber (a nom de plume) lives in a town just like yours, attended the same type of schools and yeshivot as you did and has a family just like your own. He may even be your neighbor. 

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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