Growing up my family certainly never did a “full” seder. But we did the essentials. Brisket, charoset, afikomen bargaining, and the Chad Gadya song. You know, the one that goes “That father bought for two zuzim, a kid, a kid.” Well little did I know that my favorite Pesach nursery rhyme was actually a retelling (and foretelling) of all of Jewish history. If you’re not familiar, Chad Gadya has the same structure as the Twelve Days of Christmas. Start out with the first verse then add one.
Remember from above, “That father bought for two zuzim, a kid, a kid.” That’s Chad Gadya’s partridge in a pair tree. From there we go… (paraphrasing, not the actual lyrics)
Cat eats the kid… ( I don’t know how a cat eats a baby goat, but oh well)
The cat gets bit by a dog. (Makes sense)
Dog gets beat by a stick. (Cause people weren’t into animal rights back then)
Stick gets burned by fire.
Fire gets quenched by water.
Water gets drunk by an ox.
The ox gets slaughtered by a butcher.
The butcher is killed by the Angel of Death,
And finally the Angel of Death is ended by God.
Great song. But according to the Vilna Goan,(18th century Torah GIANT) this song is God’s plan for all of existence.
The Father, Jacob (who came to be known as Israel and Jews are known as ‘children of Israel’) bought the birthright (the Kid) for virtually nothing from his brother Esav. Virtually nothing is what 2 Zuzim is worth.
The Cat is a representation of jealousy. The jealousy of the 11 brothers is when our history takes its first turn. Could we have been 12 unified sons bringing Torah into the world? Yes. But jealousy got in the way and Joseph was sold. And because of that we ended up in Egypt.
The Dog is a name for Egypt in Rabbinical writings. And when the Jews got to Egypt, the Egyptians afflicted them. And afflicted they were until…Moses came. With his mighty Staff! And we followed that staff out of Egypt. Through the desert. Until it was passed to its successor Joshua into the land of Israel. Then Joshua to the Elders and the Elders to the Prophets.
But there was a dangerous fire that tempted the Jewish people. It had been there from the beginning. Eventually avodah zarah (idol worship) won out. The Temple was lost and with it so was the Judaism Moses had brought down.
The Water that extinguished the fire of avodah zarah was the Anshe Kinesset Gedolah (The Men of The Great Assembly.) It is said that they all prayed to remove the temptation for idolatry forever. But in doing so, a level of connection with God would be lost. Judaism would have to change. The Judaism we all know now started here. Virtually everything you learned in Hebrew school was from the Anshe Kinesset Gedolah.
The Ox, an unstoppable juggernaut of the field, drinks the water. This is Rome’s destruction of the of the Temple. This we are presently in the chronology of history. But the ox drank the water. It became a part of the ox. As the Jews flow through the world.
Then comes the Butcher. The Mashiach. I know what you’re thinking. A butcher, isn’t that a bit gruesome? Well the word is actually schecter. He’s not some dime a dozen animal slaughterer. A schecter knows and is proficient in the mitzvahs of killing an animal in a painless and holy way, making it kosher. The metaphor is appropriate as Jewish understanding of the messiah is a military leader. There’s no mention of super powers whatsoever.
But even the Mashiach will die at the hands of the Angel of Death. And the Jews will once again be plunged into a period of darkness. But finally in the end, Hadosh Baruchu, our God will end the Angel of Death and with it all of death. Our history ends with techiyas hameisim, the resurrection of the dead and a return to the Garden of Eden.
History versus Memory
The Vilna Goan’s interpretation is an interesting one to say the least. But why should you care? What does our history have to do with Passover? So to answer that I’ll point to the difference between history and memory. History is a bunch of facts from a book you learned in school that you barely remember. Memories are the experiences you yourself went though and have become the lenses you use to currently view the world. Your memories shape almost everything you interpret and almost every action you take.
On Passover we are supposed to relive the story of the Exodus. Not as a history story, but as a memory that we went through. That shaped us before and currently shapes us today. And then expand that awareness to the context of all of Jewish history to recognize where you are, and where you are going.
So this year, among the freedom, and matzah, don’t forget this whole Seder thing is to recreate the memory of being slaves then becoming free. From the leaning, to the maror, to cup of Elijah. It’s all there not because you’re going to take a history test later. But because it is make you remember. Pesach Semach.