Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer GurkowPR

A Conflagration

Although the 'Chad Gadya' song is not part of the Chabad tradition, the melody holds universal appeal. In fact, one of my earliest Passover memories is learning this classic. My Bubbie’s Haggadah had beautiful illustrations and I spent many hours pouring over the pictures of the kid, cat, dog, stick etc. As a child afraid of dogs, my sympathies were always with the cat. . . .

Here is the story in short. The father buys a kid (a little goat) for two zuzim and it is eaten by a cat. A dog bites the cat, and is in turn beaten by a stick. A fire burns the stick, and is in turn put out by water. An ox laps up the water, and is in turn slaughtered by a Shochet (slaughterer). The angel of death strikes down the Shochet, leaving G-d with little choice but to strike down the angel of death.

Rabbi Yonatan Eibshitz, the famed 18th century rabbi from Prague, was involved in a terrible controversy that tore apart the Jewish community at the time. Attempting to teach a lesson about the nature of a social conflagration, he asked the following:

The Chad Gadya story leads to a troubling conclusion. If the kid is innocent, then the cat that eats it is wicked. If the cat is wicked, it deserved to be bitten. If the dog was right to bite it, then the stick was wrong to beat the dog. If the stick was wrong, the fire was right. If you follow the story line you will realize that the water was wrong, the ox was right, the shochet was wrong, the angel of death was right.

The troubling conclusion yielded by this analysis is that G-d was wrong! How can that be?

Rabbi Eibshitz explained it like this. It is normal for a goat and cat to fight. In nature, creatures often get into squabbles. The problem begins when others get involved. The fight spreads until it becomes a conflagration, and everyone gets burned. This leaves G-d with no choice, but to put an end to all enmity.

This delightful conclusion, the surprising turn taken by the Chad Gadya, is why it is so beloved. The chain of events causes one punishment to follow another, each progressively harsher. However, rather than allow the final stanza be the harshest, G-d finds a way to make his blow, the happiest.

The Jewish Story

Let me share a second insight into Chad Gadya, which will answer Rabbi Eibshitz’s question in a different way. The Chad Gadya tells the tale of the Jewish people – a single innocent kid, surrounded by powerful nations. But we have the protection of our father in heaven, who bought us for the two zuzim – the words that our ancestors said at Sinai, Na’ase V’nishma, we will obey and we will listen.

The kid’s spiritual welfare was compromised by its cat – cats are the symbol of selfish cravings. So along came a dog and bit the cat. The dog alludes to the Philistines, whose hero, Goliath, boasted to David, "Am I a dog, that you come at me with mere sticks?" Indeed, David, of whom it is written, “And a staff shall emerge from the stem of Jesse [Yishai]” slay Goliath with nothing more than a sling shot.

Many years later, the Jews returned to the path of sin, and a fire was struck by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, to burn down the stick – the kingdom of David and the Temple built by his son Solomon. However, while in Babylon, we drank water – we built many Torah centers, and Torah is compared to water; the elixir of life. In this merit, we returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the Temple.

But then, two centuries later, our Torah study, our water, was nearly lapped up by the Hellenist Greeks, who occupied our country and demanded that we inscribe upon the horns of oxen that we embrace Hellenism and reject the G-d of Israel. But G-d sent the great Shochet, the Maccabees, who slaughtered the Greeks and drove them from our land.

However, this too failed to bring permanent change. Once again, we reverted to sin and this time, the angel of death, the fearsome legions of Roman, were dispatched to lay waste to our land. It has been nearly 2000 years and we have still not escaped the iron grip of exile. Yet, we await the time of our redemption, which we believe is imminent. At this time, when “death shall be concealed forever, and the Lord God shall wipe the tears off every face,” G-d will slay the angel of death.

My older brother, Rabbi Zalman Gurkow from Chabad of Nashoba Valley, Massachusetts, pointed out that when you follow this explanation, G-d turns out to be right. In the conventional understanding, the dog is right for punishing the cat, who attacked the kid unprovoked. But this insight portrays the dog as evil; although the Jews deserved to be punished, Goliath, the dog, was still evil. This casts the stick, David, in a good light and the fire, Babylon, in a bad light. The water, Torah, is good, the ox, Hellenism is bad, the Shochet, the Maccabees, are good and the angel of death, Rome, is bad.

This leaves G-d, the ultimate redeemer, not only as good, but the best. Once again, the Chad Gadya surprises us with its unexpected happy ending.

Story of Life

Let’s put a third spin on this story. You and I are the kid, which G-d bought by implanting two zuzim, an inclination for good and for bad, within us. We have free choice and can easily choose the good each time, but we often get tripped up by the cat, our selfish craving, which takes a bite out of our longing for rectitude and for G-dliness.

The problem of the cat is only exacerbated by the dog. The Hebrew word for dog is Kelev, which is an abbreviation for Kulo Lev, all heart. A dog is all heart. It represents our passions and emotions. Anger, lust, greed, and ego, to name a few. To overcome the twin challenges of the cat and the dog, we require a stout stick. Only the stick, firm self discipline and resolute obedience, can keep us in line.

But the stick can get burned up by the flames of temptation that burn within. Sometimes temptation causes us to take leave of our senses and unhinges our strictest resolve. The Talmud tells us that when we are overwhelmed by temptation, we should engage in Torah, which is symbolized by water. Torah distracts us from temptation and fills our heart with new and reinforced resolve.

But the ox, the brute force of materialism’s allure, can be overwhelming and threaten all that we have achieved. When the ox strikes, we must slaughter it. To slaughter means to lift our penchant for pleasure to a higher dimension. Rather than destroy our cravings, we must look for ways to redirect them to holy Torah-like pursuits.

We do our best to live up to these ideals throughout our lives. Yet, despite our best efforts, when we near the end of life, and the angel of death is looming, we look back on life and note our missed opportunities; the commissions as well as the omissions.

At this point, we can only turn to G-d. We repent for our sins and He enfolds us in His loving embrace with joy and a heart full of forgiveness.

Happy Passover

Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.