Any doggie (as in “foodie”) would know that last week was the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the premier dog show in the country. Hundreds of purebred dogs compete to be named Best in Show, the highest honor for a show dog.
This year’s winner was an Affenpinscher named Banana Joe. I hadn’t heard of the breed before, but it is a small dog, part of what is called the “Toy Group” (along with pugs, papillons, chihuahuas–the small breeds.) Descriptions of the dog having a monkey-like face was met with objection in our household until we read that the name of the breed is from the German Affe, meaning “ape” or “monkey.”
But the reason I like dog shows, aside from my fondness for dogs, is how the competition is organized. Dogs are first judged as Best in Breed. The winners of the breed categories go into the group category, in which they are grouped with similar breed types. The Best in Group then goes on to compete with the winners of the other groups to hopefully be named Best in Show.
The question must arise, with so many dog breeds, how to choose a winner? For you have to admit, sometimes it is hard to see how a Shih Tzu and a Boxer, for example, are even the same species. Dog breeds very widely.
But that is the thing…in a dog show, a Shih Tzu and a Boxer are not competing against each other per se. Rather, how a winner is determined is if that breed of dog represents the best of its breed as opposed to another dog in its breed. In other words, a Shih Tzu who represents the best Shih Tzu will beat out a Boxer who may not be as good a Boxer as the Shih Tzu is a Shih Tzu. Follow?
Each breed has standards, and dogs are judged as to how well they meet that standard. A dog that better represents the standards of its breed will beat out a dog that doesn’t represent its breed as well. So at Westminster last week, Banana Joe was determined to embody his Affenpinscherness more than the other finalists. Banana Joe was a better Affenpinscher than Oakley was a German wirehaired pointer, etc.
And this aspect of dog shows always reminds me of one of my favorite Hasidic teachings:
Rebbe Zusya was on his deathbed when his disciples drew close. His students sought out any last bits of wisdom their master could divulge. He told them, “when I die, and I go to meet God, God will not ask me ‘Zusya, why were you not Moses?’ Rather, the Holy Blessed One will ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not Zusya?'”
We can only embody the best us we can be. While we are all human, we are our own unique selves, just as each breed of dog is unique in and of itself. While we see the greats around us, and also those we envy in our own small circles, we ultimately can not model our lives on theirs. We will not succeed in trying to be like others, we must only try to be ourselves. And we do have the ability to try to become the best selves we can be.
And to attain our best selves, we are judged in the same way dogs are judged, by meeting the standards of our breed, of embodying what the standards what it means to be fully human: to love and be loved, to show compassion and mercy, to help those in need, to live a life of righteousness and love, committed to tradition, to community and to one another.
If we do that, then we can all be named Best in Show.