One Little Goat and A Ram

A Ram with a large, rounded horn - the real hero of the binding of Isaac, like the goat who is the hero of passover

Passover and Chad Gadya

Passover has started. Candles have been lit, prayers spoken, rituals performed, songs sung, questions answered, and the misery of slavery remembered.

My family never celebrated the Jewish holidays. I don’t know if Passover was part of my father’s childhood. He never told me, nor did he explain the laws or rituals or holidays of his people. He was secular and thoroughly Americanized.

Perhaps that is why I seek now to understand what is and is not part of my heritage. As the story goes, my ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered them in a flurry of plagues and death. Each year, relatives I do not know gather together to retell the story, search for the matzoh, spill the wine, and end the evening with a jaunty song about a baby goat.

Chad Gadya” tells the story of what happens when a father spends two zuzim on a kid so tiny it can be eaten by a cat. The cat eats the goat, the dog bites the cat, the stick beats the dog, the fire burns the stick, the water quenches the fire, the ox consumes the water, the butcher slaughters the ox, the Angel of Death kills the butcher, and God smites death itself. In a Christ-like act of salvation, the Master of the Universe vanquishes death. Has God righted the wrongs done by Adam and Eve or tried, in this way, to make up for the wrongful death of an innocent baby goat?

A Ram with a large, rounded horn - the real hero of the binding of Isaac, like the goat who is the hero of passover

The Meaning of the Song

If so, God waited a long time to avenge the goat’s death. As the song reminds us, the pure and the good are often trampled and betrayed, so we try to make things better by harming those who themselves cause harm. For instance, we bite the cat who ate the goat or we beat the dog.

As is right, our actions have consequences, but they are not always the ones we deserve. Why should the dog be beaten for trying to restore justice? Should the cat, whose nature it is to eat prey, be punished for doing what it was created to do? Too often, we chastise others without seeing the whole situation. We get lost in our vision of “us” versus “them.”

The song could also be a simple allegory. The goat represents Israel. The other characters in the lyrics stand for nations who have conquered and oppressed the Jews. [1]

The lyrics have also been interpreted symbolically. The song could be reminding us of the perils our souls face, the many temptations that distract us from remaining in right relationship with God. It is so hard to be virtuous. [2]

As we saw, “Chad Gadya” reminds us that life is not fair. Some of us experience misery far beyond what most people can imagine; others live in luxury that few of us know. Our little goat, so gentle, kind, and sweet, dies. How can this be okay? It’s not, yet nothing we do afterwards is much better. In fact, it gets worse. Finally, God settles it all by killing the Angel of Death.

When Will the Killing End?

You would think, then, that our suffering would be over, but somehow, the violence goes on and on. In her rendition of the song, Juliet Spitzer asks, “How long will this cycle of horror last”?

For millennia, Jews have been hunted down and ravaged, their populations decimated. They understand about genocide. Horrified at the hundreds of thousands of people killed in Rwanda, Bosnia, Armenia, and Dafur, they cry out, “Never again.” Never again should the blood of genocides stain the earth.

In 2004, at the height of the Dafuri massacre, Ruth Messenger wrote, “The phrase ‘never again’ must not be reserved for Jews alone, but in fact Jews must be the guardians of this epithet, highly sensitive and responsive to all attempts by any people to annihilate another people because they are somehow perceived as different.” [3]

If only words could make it so. As Nicholas D. Kristoff reminds us, though we denounce such murders “in the abstract or after they are over,” we rarely condemn them as they occur. Jews may understand, but their voices are as easily ignored by those in power as anyone else’s. It is as if we speak to the wind.

A God Who Saves and a God Who Kills

Yet according to the Orthodox rabbi, Eliyahu Safran, the violence and despair with which we live now is not the end. In the end, God will create justice out of injustice. We see this in the little goat song, for though our journey seems random and unfair, with bites and beatings and fires and death, all paths lead us to the divine. There is nothing, Safran explains, that “does not lead up to God.” [4] We may groan under slavery for hundreds of years, wander in the desert for decades, but eventually, God intervenes. He frees the slaves and brings the wanderers home. One day, so the story goes, “the cycle of horror” will end.

Yet what does that mean to us in the world today? In this world, goats are easily turned into meals by cats, and also by humans. How are we to understand God’s grace when this same deity wipes out an entire generation of firstborn children in the name of freeing his people from slavery? Do not the Egyptians also belong to God? Surely if God could harden Pharaoh’s heart, he could have softened it instead.

Ending Human Sacrifice

The god of the Hebrew people is inscrutable. Not only does he take forever to respond to the wails of his chosen people, but he uses excessive violence to get them away from Pharaoh. But this is not the only confusing thing God has done. Before there were twelve tribes, before there were a Hebrew people who could be enslaved, God traumatized an innocent child by convincing the boy’s father to sacrifice him.

Isaac was Abraham’s only true heir, yet God told him to go to Moriah and “offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains” (Gen 22:2). At the last moment, God substituted a ram for the human child. Why? Was it so he could prove to Abraham that human sacrifice was no longer necessary? [5]

If so, why did he then sacrifice the Egyptian children? Was it tit for tat? Years earlier, Pharaoh had every newborn Hebrew baby murdered. Moses survived to grow up and become the leader of his people only because of the gentle hearts of two midwives, the subterfuge of his older sister, and the intervention of the Pharaoh’s daughter.

Though it seemed Pharaoh got away with murdering all those innocents, perhaps there really are consequences for our actions, even if we don’t see the connections at the time. One day, God will intervene and make things right, killing off one nation of babies to satisfy the blood lust of another. Given the long chain of events that twist and turn through history, though, we can’t be certain what is justice and what is injustice. Was the dog right to bite the cat? Was God wrong to kill the Angel?

The Real Hero

The poet, Yehuda Amichai, is not afraid to condemn God. Glenda Abramson, in her essay “Amichai’s God,” shows us how the poet’s complicated relationship with his own father is reflected in his understanding of God. Though Amichai’s God is ethical and sometimes tender, he is also distant, elusive, and unapproachable. [6] No matter how gentle he may be in some of Amichai’s poetry, “God remains distant and demanding.” [7] We do not understand his actions, though that does not excuse him.

In “The Real Hero,” Amichai does not praise God for offering the sacrificial animal. God may be God, but that doesn’t make violence right. Amichai refuses “to accept omnipotent malevolence.” [8]

Indeed, the poem denounces killing, by God or otherwise. It’s a commentary on the story of Isaac’s near sacrifice, of course, but it is also a rebuke of the Six Day War in 1967 and of the Lebanon War in 1982. It is seen as a call to love one another, even to love animals. By startling us with metaphor and obfuscation, Amichai shows us the absurdity of killing in God’s name. [9]

We Own Nothing

Yet many apologists applaud Abraham’s willingness to prove his fealty to God by killing his child. They note the depth of the patriarch’s faith. They point out that Abraham had been in relationship with God for long enough to know that what God commanded was for the best. God, they say, was testing this man who would be the father of the chosen people. Did God not deserve to do this, to be certain Abraham was worthy?

After all, one might say, it’s not as if we actually own anything. Like slaves, everything we have belongs to our master. If God is the Master of the Universe, then God is our owner. Thus, if God wants the blood of our children, who are we to deny him? [10]

Why Would An Omniscient God Test Us?

Not everyone agrees with this. Others conclude from the story that piety sometimes drives us to do cruel things. In his eagerness to please his god, Abraham wounded those he loved. What was Isaac thinking as he lay, bound by ropes, on top of the sticks his father had gathered to burn the sacrifice? How long did it take for his fear to ease, for the trauma to stop haunting him?

No one tells us.

Nor do we learn where Sarah was, what she knew about this, what she thought. This is not unusual, for women were rarely given voice in the scriptures, but surely she would have been horrified to learn how close her only son had been to dying at his father’s hand. Would she have forgiven God as easily as do some Bible scholars?

Why did God need to put these innocent people through such anxiety, anyway? If Abraham knew God well enough to trust him, certainly God knew Abraham well enough to know the patriarch need not be tested. Is God omniscient or not?

The Ram

Given all this, perhaps we can understand why, for Amichai, neither God nor Abraham were heroes. In his poem, the two collude with the Angel against the “real hero” of the tale: the ram. The sheep was the innocent one, taken by surprise, offering himself up, like the goat who was eaten by the family cat.

Yet, as we saw, it is a cat’s nature to prey upon creatures smaller than itself. Similarly, it is in the nature of fathers to protect their children. So why did Abraham not balk when his god created a situation in which an innocent being would die? If not Isaac, then the ram.

The death of one, little goat was apparently necessary so that, in the end, God might, in good conscience, destroy death. Is that why the ram had to die? So Isaac could father a nation of people whom God would one day free from slavery?

This might be a good reason, though wouldn’t it have been better not to threaten Isaac’s life in the first place? After all, no matter how much good will come of it, the ram is still dead. In Amichai’s poem, by the time the ram is slaughtered, God and Abraham have disappeared. Only the Angel and Isaac look on, their eyes hauntingly empty. The ram matters to none of them.

As if trying to make it up to this poor creature, Amichai writes a “memorial song” for the ram. To him, the creature was not a “them,” it was an “us.” It was important . Therefore the animal’s death was not acceptable. [11]

No Distinction

What kind of God demands a sacrifice? If God can harden hearts, why does he not soften them? Why not turn Pharaoh’s thoughts away from evil? If he is truly God, can he not find a way to soothe Pharaoh’s fears, ease his sense of loss, help him see the gift in letting go?

Over the centuries, we humans have created myths out of bits of reality and experience. We have woven tales about God that tell the truth of being human, of being oblivious, cruel, fearful, stubborn, and of being called to greatness. We force our myths to hold everything we long for and everything we fear. Perhaps to convince ourselves that our longings are reasonable and our horrors negligible, we turn our stories into facts. We invent hard-hearted Pharaohs and angels who sacrifice the innocent.

Even in the face of one disaster, one genocide, after another, our voices crying out, “Never again,” we helplessly wring our hands. We seem unable to do what we know is right. It is as if we are waiting for God to wipe out the Egyptians or offer up the ram. Our knife is poised, and we cannot tell who is “us” and who is “them,” because there really isn’t any distinction at all.

Finding Freedom

So we should be able to do what Amichai asks of us and identify with the ram. Perhaps we can also identify with the slaughtered, Egyptian children. If we can, will that stop us from sacrificing other beings to satisfy our lusts, our addictions, our rationalizations, our fears? Will it inspire us to turn back, repent, reconcile?

We are called to mend this broken and amazingly beautiful world. When will we start?

The Passover Seder remind us that we are still slaves. Our hearts are still bound, as Isaac’s body was. The Egyptians thought they were the masters, but in their cruelty, they were as trapped as their supposed chattel. Like my ancestors, I was a slave in Egypt. But I was also the Pharaoh and his people, bound by my belief in my own superiority.

Yet our slavery is not the end. As did the Hebrews, we can find freedom. We might have to wander through the wilderness for a while, but we will lose the chains that fetter us, if we choose to.

The ram in Amichai’s poem lives on in the present. He is the hero even now. Like Abraham and the angel, like Pharaoh, we sacrifice the innocent. We tear apart families, communities, the environment. Everything we touch, we destroy.

Yet, we are also noble, forgiving, tender, and holy. We sacrifice ourselves for those we love, and even for those we don’t. We are called to be the real hero, because there is no one else.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Epstein, Jessica, “Chad Gadya: Not Just for Kids,” American Conference of Cantors, April 1, 2010, https://www.accantors.org/chad-gadya-not-just-kids , accessed 4/13/19.
  2. Gurkow, Lazer, “Chad Gadya: Should G-d Have Killed the Angel of Death?,” Israel National News, September 4, 2017, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/227968 , accessed 4/13/19.
  3. Messinger, Ruth, “Darfur: Never Again?,” Aish Ha Torah, November 20, 2004, https://www.aish.com/ci/s/48918992.html, accessed 4/8/19.
  4. Safran, Eliyahu, “Chad Gadya,” Orthodox Union, March 1, 2013, https://www.ou.org/holidays/passover/chad-gadya/, accessed 4/13/19.
  5. Cahill, Thomas, “Ending Human Sacrifice,” Christian History, Christianity Today, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-60/patrick-saint.html, accessed 4/13/19.
  6. Cohen, Joseph, Voices of Israel : Essays on and Interviews, AU Yehuda Amichai, A. B. Yehoshua, T. Carmi, Aharon Appelfeld, and Amos Oz, New York: State University of New York Press, 1990, 20.
  7. Ibid 17.
  8. Ibid 17.
  9. Amichai, Yehuda, “The Real Hero,” The Selected Poetry Of Yehuda Amichai, edited by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, 1st ed., California: University of California Press, 2013, 156–157.
  10. See Ferrer, John D., “Was Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac Evil?,” Intelligent Christian Faith, July 10, 2015, https://intelligentchristianfaith.com/2015/07/10/was-abrahams-sacrifice-of-isaac-evil/, accessed 4/13/19 and Crain, Natasha, “Why Did God Tell Abraham to Sacrifice Isaac?,” Christian Mom Thoughts, May 17, 2016, https://christianmomthoughts.com/why-did-god-tell-abraham-to-sacrifice-isaac/ , accessed 4/13/19.
  11. Abramson, Glenda, Writing of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach, New York: State University of New York Press, 1989, 45.

Photo by Filip Filipov on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved



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