BY RABBI MARK GLICKMAN
If only they’d thought about the goat, my friend Johnny and his fellow complainers might not whine so much about the Passover Seder — the festive meal that kicks off the weeklong springtime Jewish festival.
“The story just wouldn’t end,” Johnny says of his childhood Seders. “The grown-ups, they read the Haggadah [the prayerbook Jews use at the festive Passover meal], and then they talked for hours about what the thing said. We, we sang all these Hebrew songs, we read about what it was like a gazillion years ago when our ancestors left slavery in Egypt, and then we ate and ate and ate until we were ready to pop.
“I was only 7 years old,” Johnny recalled. “But with all of that ‘exodusing’ and wandering through the desert,
I was certain that by the time our Seder ended, I’d be collecting Social Security!”
Johnny had grown a bit jaded in his Passover recollections. In fact, many Jews have fond memories of Passover, and even those of us who got bored at our Seders when we were kids were pretty certain that the meal would be over in plenty of time for us to get our driver’s licenses.
And yet, when Johnny said that the story they told during his Passover Seder wouldn’t end, he was actually correct — far more correct than he probably realized. In fact, the very endlessness of the story of Passover is part of what makes it great.
Most people who know anything about the holiday will tell you that it recalls and relives the story of the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land. Unlike Johnny, these people aren’t quite as correct as they think.
Yes, the Passover story recalls the exodus from Egypt, and yes it recalls the glory of our arrival in the promised land, but it doesn’t stop there. It also looks ahead — ahead to our own day, and even beyond.
Exhibit A is the goat. As the Seder nears its end, we sing a song in Aramaic called “Chad Gadya.”
The song is about a single kid — a caprine kid, not a human kid — that “my father bought for two zuzim [a pittance].” Early on, the song breaks out into an
“I Know an Old Lady”-style chain of woeful events. A cat comes along and eats the little goat; then a dog comes and bites the cat; a stick beats the dog, a fire burns the stick, water quenches the fire, and an ox drinks the water. It’s a fun little ditty that delights young and old alike.
Until the end. At the end of the song, a butcher slaughters the ox, the Angel of Death slays the butcher, the Holy Blessed One smites the Angel of Death, and the song’s rating suddenly jumps from G to R.
Not surprisingly, the little goat of “Chad Gadya” — not to mention all of the nefarious characters who follow — represent far more than a little goat and nasty animals. The little goat is the Jewish people, and the following characters are its oppressors, the oppressors of the their oppressors, and all of the oppressors who came afterward — Romans, Greeks, Babylonians, etc.
One day the final oppressor will fall before the Angel of Death, and then God will overcome Death itself, ushering in an era of eternal life.
“Chad Gadya,” in other words, is a song of profound faith. Things may be rough now, it says, but in the end, the forces of life and goodness will prevail. In the end, God wins.
That little goat, therefore, teaches of a story that can give us hope even during the darkest of times. Yes, things may be rough now, but the story isn’t over. It is, in fact, moving toward a better time for us all.
On Monday, April 14, Johnny and millions of other Jews around the world will sit down to our annual Passover Seders. We’ll tell an eternal story, we’ll talk and talk and talk, and we’ll eat ’til we’re ready to pop.
“Johnny,” I remind him, “the Seder may seem long, but it doesn’t have to be interminable. If you think of that goat, you’ll remember that one day — perhaps very soon — the Seder and suffering itself can come to an end. A very nice end indeed.
Rabbi Mark Glickman has served as rabbi of Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island since 2004.