The Haggadah makes it all sound so clear: “Avadim Hayinu l’Faro b’Mitzrayim”, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”.
Actually “avadim”, slaves, has a number of possible meanings, and before we celebrate Pesach we need to investigate how it applies to our ancestors in Egypt.
Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik distinguishes between two types of slavery – juridic (physical) and typological (moral and intellectual).
In the first category the slave belongs to his master because of the political system. It is his status that is at issue. In the second category, his mind, will and dignity are crushed: at issue is his personality.
Both forms of slavery affected the Israelites in Egypt. The Haggadah says, “We shall sing You a new song for ‘ge’ulatenu’, our redemption (juridic) and ‘p’dut nafshenu’, the liberation of our soul (typological)”.
In both types of slavery, a person is “a man without options”. He cannot change the political system or assert his personality. He needs God.
Yet now, it seems, he moves to a third type of slavery. In place of a human master, God says, “Avadai hem” – “They are My slaves” (Lev. 25:42).
But there is a difference between the first two types of slavery and the third. In the first two, the slave is without options. Now he has emerged from a life without options to be God’s willing servant. No longer enslaved by duress, he enlists his freedom in the service of God.
Says the Rav, “In surrendering to God, man truly achieves freedom. He is no longer tormented by psychologically depressing anxieties. He is bolstered by his faith in the transcendental orderliness of things and in God’s ultimate compassion”.
An impressive analysis, but we have to ask at least two further questions:
* Is it really the case that there is nothing a slave can do to free himself from his slavery whether juridic or typological?
* What happens if the erstwhile slave, having been redeemed by God, chooses not to come under the Divine aegis and says, “Enough of slavery – and I don’t want to be a slave/servant even to God”?
To the first question the answer is that unless the slave determines that he will not succumb to his oppression and learn to live with it, he cannot respond when God says, “Come, it’s time to go”. He has to be mentally ready to go, but the actual redemption is too big for him to achieve on his own.
The second question appears fair enough. Having been freed by God, a person can well decide he wants to be free from God. It must remain an option, but it carries a danger. Being free to go anywhere and be anything, he can find himself rudderless, bored and lost. Being free requires a purpose in life. Whatever you call it, that is God.
CHAD GADYA – NOT A CHILDISH RHYME AT ALL.
It’s the swansong of the seder, that curious, delightful song, Chad Gadya.
It comes when we’ve been sitting at the Pesach table for hours. The questions have been asked and answered; the traditional foods, both the sweet and the sour, have been eaten; the meal is concluded; we’ve prayed, read, talked and sung – and now none of us can really stay awake any longer.
But somehow we summon up that last burst of energy, for to end without Chad Gadya would be unthinkable. And indeed the unthinkable happens. We are suddenly wide awake, a sheaf of melodies for the old song vie with each other, and we increase its tempo to the point at which we can hardly cope with the tongue-twisting verses. And so to bed, as Pepys (or was it Dr Johnson?) would have said, in happy frame of mind.
One of the strange features of Chad Gadya is that it isn’t nearly as ancient as most people think. It first appeared in a Haggadah printed in Prague in 1590 and was written in Aramaic, probably in order to suggest a more venerable lineage.
The author’s name is not known. Many scholars, such as GA Kohut, regard the song as simply a Jewish nursery rhyme borrowed from a German ballad, “Der Herr der schickt den Jokel aus”, with many parallels in other languages.
It’s an engaging theory, and if one objects that the song has a streak of cruelty and therefore is bad for children, think of most of the nursery rhymes you know (“Jack and Jill”, for instance) and you find that they are all mostly rather cruel.
But the Kohut theory is too easy. After all, Chad Gadya comes at the end of the seder, and most children will long since have dropped off to sleep. Further, as Israel Abrahams points out in his “Festival Studies”, there is hardly any children’s literature in Jewish records, and the Seder songs are more “the food of philosophers” than “the pap of infants”.
The Chida severely criticised those who treated Chad Gadya as merely a light-hearted riddle for children. The Kotzker Rebbe regarded the song as the holiest of all the Pesach piyyutim.
The likelihood is that, in some sixteenth century Ashkenazi community, a chazan or householder borrowed the style of a folk-ballad and created for the Haggadah his own Midrash on Jewish history. The material he used may have been suggested by the Bible: “Israel is a scattered sheep; the lions have driven him away; first the king of Assyria devoured him, and last this Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, has broken his bones… Therefore will I punish the king of Babylon” (Jer. 50:17-29).
In 1731, PN Lebrecht suggested that the one kid is Israel; the two coins are Moses and Aaron through whom God redeemed the kid from Egypt; the cat is Assyria, the dog is Babylon, the stick is Persia, the fire is Greece, the water is Rome, the ox is the Saracens, the butcher is the Crusaders, and the Angel of Death is Turkey whom God will finally destroy, and then the Jewish people will be restored to their Holy Land.
The author of Chad Gadya recognised that many Jews wondered why the messianic fulfilment was taking so long and why they had to suffer so much for their faith. Hence Chad Gadya echoed the earlier passage, “V’hi She’amdah” – “It is God’s promise that has sustained our ancestors and us; not one enemy alone has risen up against us to annihilate us, but in every generation enemies arise to annihilate us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, delivers us from their hands”.
World history may be viewed through the eyes of our author. Life is a vicious circle. They who resort to violence become victims of violence. Cat eats kid; dog attacks cat. Hillel put it this way when he saw a skull floating on the surface of the water: “Because you drowned others, they have drowned you; and in the end they that drowned you shall themselves be drowned” (Avot 2:7).
This explains the final stanza of Chad Gadya: “Then came the Holy One, blessed be He, and slew the Angel of Death, who slew the slaughterer, who killed the ox…” Says Jakob J Petuchowski, “God comes Himself, and puts an end to that iron chain of ‘Cause and Effect’ which threatens ultimately to wipe out the world as a whole”.
The moral of Chad Gadya is for adults: there is a day of judgment, when all creation will ultimately be called to account.
But it’s not a morbid but an uplifting thought with which to conclude the seder. As with all Jewish observances, the Seder must finish on a high note of faith and optimism. Like Adon Olam, with its climactic, “Into His hand I commend my spirit; the Lord is with me, I shall not fear”, Chad Gadya shows us God’s Will finally supreme in history, and an only kid that will never again suffer.
THE FIFTH QUESTION.
Let’s have a competition to nominate a fifth question for Pesach.
Entries would have to begin, “On all other nights…”.
I and my family would of course be disqualified from entering because I would presumably be the judge. Nonetheless I think I know what suggestion I would make for a fifth question.
It would come from the haftarah for Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed, Ezekiel 37, the famous chapter of the dry bones.
In that chapter the prophet sees a valley full of bones and God asks him, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Ezekiel answers, “O Lord God, only You know!” God tells him, “Prophesy over these bones; say to them, ‘Dry bones, listen to the words of the Lord!’”
Ezekiel’s experience tells me what question I would add to the Mah Nishtanah. I would say, not about bones or bodies but about the existing four questions, “Can these questions live?”
In other words, are the ancient questions and traditional observances a dead poets’ society, an anachronism in today’s world with its massive global problems, or do they really have the power to inspire and guide a fraught and fragile generation?
That would be my question. If those who listened to my question worked out some answers for themselves, we could all find ways of walking unafraid through the modern maze.