Some Reflections on “Chad Gaya”

In 1947, in the wake of the United Kingdom’s decision to relinquish their Mandate for Palestine, the United Nations formed the Special Committee on Palestine. The purpose of the commission was to investigate the conflict in Palestine and to make a recommendation on future governance of the area. David Ben Gurion, the future Prime Minister of Israel, testified before the committee. In part of that testimony, Ben Gurion compared the Exodus from Egypt with another historic exodus. Speaking before the committee he said:

“300 years ago, there came to the New World a boat, and its name was the Mayflower. The Mayflower’s landing on Plymouth Rock was one of the great historical events in the history of England and in the history of America. But I would like to ask any Englishman sitting here on the commission, what day did the Mayflower leave port? What date was it? I’d like to ask the Americans: do they know what date the Mayflower left port in England? How many people were on the boat? Who were their leaders? What kind of food did they eat on the boat? “More than 3300 years ago, long before the Mayflower, our people left Egypt, and every Jew in the world, wherever he is, knows what day they left. And he knows what food they ate. And we still eat that food every anniversary. And we know who our leader was. And we sit down and tell the story to our children and grandchildren in order to guarantee that it will never be forgotten. And we say our two slogans: ‘Now we may be enslaved, but next year, we’ll be a free people.’”

In this statement Ben Gurion seems to be suggesting that it is our capacity to remember that accounts for the longevity of the Jewish people. Perhaps as well it is a subtle warning to the great powers of the time that held Israel’s fate in their hands that they would do well to heed that lesson. Many civilizations have come and gone, yet, the Jewish people, with our prodigious memory, remain. This is the essential meaning of the final song of our Haggadah, Chad Gadya that Jewish families around the world will be singing as we conclude our Passover seders in ten days. There have been many interpretations of what appears to be a typical children’s song. I’d like to share one of those interpretations with you this evening.

The song begins with the verse “Chad Gadya” – One kid, which Father bought for two zuzim,” or coins. The kid, or goat, represents the Jewish people. The “Father” who gives two coins, or zuzim, for the kid represents G-d, who gave the Jewish people the two tablets of the law, the Ten Commandments. There follows a series of verses introducing animals, objects and people who in turn slaughter, devour, burn, hit or bite one another. These represent the powerful nations of the world who achieve ascendancy in their time, only to eventually lose their power. The final verse of the song, where the Ruler of the Universe makes His appearance, represents the final judgement and the redemption of the Jewish people.

There has been much speculation about how this beloved song entered the Haggadah. Its first appearance in a printed Haggadah was in 1590 in Prague. Some say that it was based on a familiar German nursery rhyme of the era. Others say that German nursery rhyme is based on Chad Gadya!

Natan Alterman, one of the most prominent Modern Hebrew poets of the 20th century, has his own theory about how this song entered our Haggadah. He wrote a charming poem about it, which I would like to share with you this evening.

He stood there in the market, among the she-goats and Billy goats /swinging its tail/as small as a pinkie/a kid from a poor home/a kid for two zuzim/without adornment/without bell or ribbon.
No one paid him attention, so no one knew/not the goldsmiths not the wool combers/that this kid/will enter the Haggadah/and become the hero of a song.
The poem begins with a scene in a marketplace. A plain baby goat, unadorned, unnoticed and unremarkable is for sale. The kid, however, is destined to be famous.
But father approached, his face glowing/and bought the kid/and caressed its forehead/this was the start of one of the songs/that will be sung forever.
The kid licked Father’s hand with its tongue/and touched it with his wet nose/this, my brother, was the first rhyme/of the verse “dezabin aba”.
The father of the narrator approaches the kid. There is an immediate bonding. The father strokes the kid. The kid licks the father and nuzzles up to him. The song has begun.
It was a spring day and the wind was dancing/Girls were laughing with winking eyes/And Father and the kid entered the Haggadah/ And both just stood there.
That very same Haggadah was already full/With wonders and great miracles/Therefore they stood on the last page/hugging and pressed to the wall
They enter the Haggadah, but there is already so much going on. Like a shy couple entering a room brimming with activity, the song does not know what to do. The simple song is intimidated by the majesty of the Haggadah. So the song waits quietly, taking comfort in itself, biding its time on the back page.
That very same Haggadah then silently said/Good, stand there kid and Father/In my pages walk smoke and blood/I am talking of greatness and secret things.
Yet I know that the sea will not part in vain/That there is a reason for splitting through walls and deserts/If at the end of the story/Stand a Father and kid/Waiting for their turn to shine.

The Haggadah, full of its own importance, takes notice of this simple song waiting at the back of the book. It then does something surprising. It acknowledges that it tells its story for the sake of this little song. The song may seem like an insignificant child’s ditty, but it is for its sake that the Haggadah tells the story of the Exodus.

I am sure each of us will have their own interpretation of this poem. To me, it means that as grand and epic the Passover story told in the Haggadah is, if it doesn’t move us, if we cannot relate to it, then it is merely a great story. All of the majestic symbols and concepts of the Passover seder are for naught if they do not reach down to the human level and touch our hearts.
Shabbat Shalom