From goat to God: Chad Gadya tells the story of the Jews

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach

Exodus 33:12-34:26

Numbers 28:19-25

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The Passover seder can run quite late. As a child, I fought to stay up for the excitement that comes at the end: the hunt for the hidden afikomen matzah (with its accompanying prize) and the cheery songs at the very end. “Who knows one?” You can bet we all did. And then there was the song about the little goat. What was the little goat doing at the end of our seder?

“Chad Gadya,” or “One Little Goat,” tells the story of a chain of events. There was a little goat that father bought for two coins. All was well, until a cat came along and ate the goat. The cat fell prey to a dog, the dog was beaten by a stick, and so on and so forth until HaShem gets involved to polish off the Angel of Death at the back end of the series. Great story, but remind me again why I’m reading this on a stomach full of matzah and wine at 1 in the morning?

In the 18th century, Rav Yonatan Eibschitz ended up in a dispute with a fellow rabbi. In time, the people of the various communities in the area began to take sides in the disagreement, some siding with Rav Eibschitz and some against. As can be expected, this fanned the flames and made things much worse. It is said that he offered the following insight into the “Chad Gadya” song at that time:

The song begins with a nice, sweet little goat. Along comes a vicious cat and eats it — bad cat. Then comes the dog that bites the cat — good dog. But then the stick hits the perfectly nice canine that had come to the scene — bad stick. The fire that burns the stick? We’re all in favor of that fire. We then jeer the water that puts out the fire but love the ox that drinks up the water (that’ll show ’em!). Along comes the shochet (butcher) that slaughters the ox — very bad shochet indeed.

But where does that leave us? Cheering the Angel of Death who brings the demise of the shochet, and booing HaShem for taking away the Angel of Death? That cannot be!

The moral of the story, according to Rav Eibschitz, is clear. A cat and a goat were having a dispute. These things happen in nature. But when all the others got involved, the outcome became distorted. No one else should have interfered in his disagreement, and the consequences of the buildup of sides without cause proved destructive.

His words ring true for so many interpersonal disputes. In many cases, those who intervene don’t belong there. Perhaps though, we sing this song on Passover to reach out to the one that we hope will intervene on our behalves: HaShem. Commentators have suggested that the little goat is a symbol for the Jewish people, whose loving father in heaven “acquired” us with two coins — the two tablets on which were engraved the Ten Commandments.

History has witnessed this gentle little goat being beaten up by many an aggressive cat. It has also seen those cats themselves bitten by other animals and fading from the scene. On these nights we remember that we were there as the Egyptians met their demise. The Babylonians are gone, as are the Greeks of old and the Romans. We are not always in a position to see through the chain all the way to the top, but we hope and pray that HaShem is looking out for us from above.

The closing portions of the seder shift the focus from the past to the present and future. We move from remembering our affliction at the hands of the Egyptians to considering where we are today and where we dream to be. Jews have for thousands of years opened the door to welcome Eliyahu, the harbinger of redemption, in hope that this would be the last Passover on which we had anything to fear. May HaShem intervene on our behalves whenever we are in need.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Oakland’s Beth Jacob. He can be reached at rabbi@bethjacoboakland.org .