Rabbi Mark Glickman: The Awesome Possibility of Change – Lessons from an Only Kid and its Pursuers’ Pursuers

Rabbi Mark Glickman

by Rabbi Mark Glickman 

(Calgary) – On April 22, Jews will gather around our Seder tables as we have at this time of year for many centuries. There, through prayer, song, and lots of unleavened food, we will retell and relive the experience of our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt and their journey toward redemption. And as the Seder draws to a close, we will sing – again, as we have done for ages – about a little goat: Chad Gadya.

The song is an Aramaic ditty, vaguely reminiscent of “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” Here, we sing about a goat that “my father bought for [a pittance] – two zuzim.” The song is fun at first: A cat comes along and eats the goat; then comes a dog who bites the cat, and a stick that beats the dog. In short order, each victor is itself vanquished – fire burns the stick, water quenches the fire, and an ox drinks the water. It’s almost like a children’s book.

Then, however, the song turns dark. A butcher slaughters the ox; the Angel of Death kills the butcher, and the Holy Blessed One Destroys the Angel of Death.

God wins in the end, and Death is vanquished. Children’s literature this ain’t.

Of course, this isn’t really a song about a goat. Most commentators understand the goat to represent the Jewish people, and the song therefore serves as a reminder that those who oppress us will one day receive their due. And that God wins in the end.

But a close look at the song through this lens soon reveals a problem. If the goat represents us – the Jewish people – then presumably, the goat is good. If the goat is good, then the cat who bites it is bad. That would make the dog who bites the bad cat a good character – one who overcame the oppressor. Continuing in this vein, the stick who beats our good dog, is bad. The fire: good. The water: bad. The ox: good.  The butcher: bad. The Angel of Death: good. The Holy One of Blessing: bad.

Wait! Something’s gone wrong here. We can debate who the good guys and who the bad guys are in history, but certainly we can agree that, if anything we’ve learned about Judaism is true, then Death can’t be a good guy and God the villain. In fact, it must be just the opposite!

Maybe, the lesson here is both obvious and profound. Maybe, over all those Chad Gadya generations, one or more of those oppressors – the cat, the stick, the ox, or whoever – actually changed at some point. Maybe the whole enterprise of categorizing the world into heroes and villains is wrong, because most of us are both at some point in our lives.

Intuitively, we know this. People change. Otherwise good people can do horrible things, and scoundrels can transform themselves into saints.

These days, however, this lesson is vitally important to remember. Conflict and violence abound these days, but people can change. Today’s enemy can become tomorrow’s friend; today’s friend can betray us and become hostile.

People change, and that makes our every relationship uncertain. What fear that can cause. And what awesome possibility and hope it can bring.

As we sing Chad Gadya this year, let’s do so in the hope that sticks that cause pain can one day create shelter; that biting cats and devouring dogs can one day become our best friends; and that one day soon, God’s hope for a better and more peaceful world will be realized for all human beings.

Chag Pesach Sameach – may you and your loved ones have a joyous Passover.

Rabbi Mark Glickman is Rabbi at Temple B’nai Tikvah, Calgary’s Jewish Reform Congregation. 

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