Some find it surprising that at the Passover Seder, we discuss weighty themes of slavery and freedom and redemption, but the culmination, the grand finale of the entire seder, is Had Gadya - basically the Jewish version of “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly.”
In fact, there has been a lot of confusion in Jewish tradition about how this folk song for children managed to work its way into the Haggadah, such that it is now sung in virtually every Jewish community around the world: “My father bought a little goat for two gold coins. Then came a cat that ate the goat - that my father bought for two gold coins. Then came a dog and bit the cat - that ate the goat - that my father bought for two gold coins. Then came a stick - and beat the dog - that bit the cat......” etc. etc. And the song concludes, ten verses later: “And then came God, the Holy Blessed One, and slaughtered the Angel of Death - who slaughtered the butcher who slaughtered the ox that drank the water that put out the fire that burnt the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two gold coins.”
This is, of course, very inspiring religious material.
I was once teaching the song to second graders in our Learning Center, and one girl said, “Did this really happen? I mean, how can a cat eat a goat?”
A wide array of commentaries in our tradition endeavor to explain exactly what this passage is doing in the Passover seder at all. This is quite a conundrum, considering that the song seems to have nothing to do with Passover, and almost nothing to do with Judaism, except for the appearance of God at the very end.
Some people choose to understand Had Gadya theologically. They say that the point of the song is that at the end, God slaughters the Angel of Death. If God is truly all-powerful, then God can triumph even over death and bring the world into the era of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead.
Others interpret Had Gadya as an extensive allegory for the history of the Jewish people. The Jewish people, of course, are the goat, and some say that the 2 gold coins are the two tablets of the ten commandments, given by God to the Jewish people to solidify our relationship. But over and over, the Jewish people are oppressed and persecuted and burned and extinguished and slaughtered, just as happens in the song. And in fact, each stage of the song can be regarded as a different stage in the history of Jewish persecution. The cat represents Assyria; the dog is Babylonia; the stick is Persia, and so on and so on. But ultimately God rescues us and saves us from our oppressors.
Another explanation was presented by the eminent Israeli Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. He remembers in his childhood trying to make sense of this song, concluding that this is really a song about vengeance. The cat eats the goat - but then the dog bites the cat. So, he presumed, the dog and the goat are friends. They’re on the same team. The dog saw that the goat was getting eaten, and came to its aid to exercise some vengeance against the cat.
But then the stick comes and beats the dog. So presumably the stick is friends with the cat, and the stick is angry at the dog for biting the cat. But then there’s another reprisal: next we have the fire, burning the stick, so the fire seems to be defending the dog for his vigilante action, and so on and so on… until things get so out of hand that God has to step in.
The song, then, is a classic demonstration of how a cycle of violence can so easily and quickly spiral out of control. What was once a small, local conflict between the cat and the goat has now involved, and destroyed, two other animals, three objects, one person, and one angel, and God has to step in and keep the peace.
But all these efforts don’t bring the goat back to life, nor do they necessarily function to deter the cat, or anyone else, from eating other goats in the future. The song reminds us that revenge is, plain and simple, a failed strategy most of the time.
It shouldn’t surprise us that there are at least three prominent Israeli poets and songwriters who have played with the imagery of Had Gadya as a way of describing the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, which often times looks like this kind of pointless cycle of violence and revenge (though clearly there is a difference between terrorists who target civilian populations, and military actions that target only known perpetrators and go through extraordinary measures to limit civilian casualties). (See poems and songs by Yehuda Amichai (Hebrew, English) Chava Alberstein (Hebrew, English, and video), and Levin Kipnis (who pictures a utopian version of Chad Gadya in which the animals cooperate rather than fighting with each other; Hebrew, video)
Had Gadya reminds us that no matter who is more at fault, the cycle of revenge is likely to continue until someone breaks the cycle. And the longer it takes to realize this, the more people die.
I wish Had Gadya or some other Jewish text were able to present precise guidelines for us, or for Israel today, for how to cope with the terrorism and the hatred. But perhaps it’s not in the nature of religious texts to provide specific policy guidelines. Religious texts are more likely to be successful at planting values within us, and helping us to balance those values against each other. May the values presented in the Passover Seder, and in Had Gadya, help us and others to move our world in the direction of peace.