My all-time favorite part of Passover comes at the close of the seder: the singing of “Chad Gadya.”
You know the lyrics: A father pays two zuzim for “one little goat”; a cat somehow comes along and kills the kid; a dog bites the cat; a big stick beats up the fierce canine. Fire then somehow enters the scene, followed by water, which puts out the fire.
Then along comes an ox and slurps up the water ... that is, until the shochet, the ritual slaughterer, puts down the ox. Then the angel of death takes the life of the slaughterer ... and family and guests at the seder table sing the whole long catalog of cruel destinies with each stanza until the incredible final stanza: God steps into the drama and destroys death itself!
This ancient litany appealed to me as a youngster, and I have never outgrown it. It strikes me, in all its silly and absurd nonsense, as really and truly profound. It poses the problem of the frailty of life for all its characters and all its contents. Everything is fragile, limited in power and plight, and yet at the same time there is eternal hope for justice and mercy.
In my olden times, we used the free haggadot produced by Maxwell House Coffee (“Good to the Last Drop”) and distributed at local delis – remember?
I liked the simple drawings in those haggadot, but today we have a variety of Passover guidebooks to choose from, with a wide range of art, styles and emphasis. Renowned Jewish authors and artists write their memoirs into haggadot or personally illustrate the cat, dog, torch, ox, butcher, angel .... But I keep and cherish one of the free Depression-era haggadot, bound in soft blue cardboard.
On a nostalgia note, isn’t the death of your first pet – be it pup, kitten, canary, parakeet, even a single goldfish in a bowl – your first outrage at the grief of losing a first love? Don’t you – or didn’t you – hope that there was a heaven where you and your beloved pet might meet up once again?
I even read, once upon a time, that the long and rather eerie “Chad Gadya” predates Pesach and reaches backward into the anguish of our human – but not always humane – species upon the earth.
I usually invite a student to join us at our seder table. I make sure to leave the front door wide open, place an extra glass of wine for “Elijah,” and a chair with a nice cushion, and explain my kooky version of the symbolism.
After the lovely dinner is served, and the hidden afikoman has given the children a chance to run around and play and argue, I try to get everyone back to the table to chant the prayer for the lost beloved little baby goat – the “one only kid” with the soul that the Eternal means to restore and avenge!
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.