Chad Gadya – A Spiritual Cycle
1. Every year at the Seder table we all notice that the “wise” and “wicked” sons use similar terminology in talking about the Pesach, but only the wicked son is rebuked. They both say something along the lines of “what does this mean to you”, without including themselves. Lots of explanations are offered, and the one that strikes the strongest chord with me sees the four sons as four generations.
2. The “wise” son is “clever” in a pejorative sense – a common use of the Hebrew “chochom” – he thinks he will make Judaism easy for himself by saying to his father – “tell me what the rules are but don’t bother me with the explanations – I’ll do whatever you do because I want to be ‘frum’ and stay within the exclusive social circle, but I don’t see the need to search for complicated explanations; just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”.
3. The problem is that his son is the “wicked” son in the sense of liking to challenge things: he says to his father – anything you can explain to me so that I can understand it, I’ll do – but anything that makes no sense to me, I won’t. For example, why can’t I use a light switch on Shabbos? But his father can’t answer that, because he never asked his father, because he never wanted to understand. Social conformity was the extent of his religious observance. So the “wicked” son rejects everything that does not have an obvious explanation, and practices those parts of the religion that happen to make sense to him.
4. So his son is “simple” – the word “tam” in Hebrew meaning closed or deficient: he has a limited menu to choose from because he is starting from the list that happened to make sense to his father, who rejected everything he couldn’t understand and whose father couldn’t explain the others because he never asked about them.
5. Which means that the next generation “cannot ask a question” – he cannot put together a coherent question to establish the nature and value of his Jewish identity, because all he has is a few cultural fragments that happened to survive the ravages of both the “wicked” and the “simple” generations.
6. From complete Jewish observance to nothing at all in four generations: and all starting with blind, meaningless observance. So we warn the “wise” son: but in what terms? He is about to make a fundamental error in Jewish observance, so we say to him something profound and meaningful, presumably? Apparently not. We say: “don’t eat after the Afikomen”, the final piece of matzah at the seder. Not obviously either deep, instructive or even relevant!
7. The Afikomen of the Haggadah is the Chad Gadya poem. Whatever differences there are in different Haggadot – and one of the key Seder rituals is comparing different orders and phrasings – every Haggadah around the world ends with Chad Gadya. This is the Afikomen that the Rabbis wanted to leave running around our minds at the end of the evening. And on its surface it is a children’s tale about animals and other things without any profound message at all.
8. The central feature of the Chad Gadya is the small goat that father brings home for the seder. This obviously represents the korban Pesach – the Pascal sacrifice.
9. The most superficial and selfish part of my mind looks on that simply as a good meal. The feline part of my nature – and cats are a byword for selfishness, and were one of the Egyptians’ gods for that reason – wants to look no further into the korban Pesach than a nice meal. So the cat eats the goat.
10. But there is part of my nature that can’t help thinking that we can do better than that as a religion, and that we need to look for something more meaningful. The canine part of my nature is looking for an ideal to sign up to and be loyal to. The dog has always been noted for loyalty, but without discrimination: like Bill Sykes’ famous dog, the dog will be loyal to whoever feeds it, whether he be saint or sinner. So the dog chases the cat away, looking for something better than mere selfish greed in my religious observance.
11. That’s a positive sign, but easily corrupted. The blind loyalty of the dog is open to being seduced by every kind of foolishness that religious mis-observance has to offer. The Jewish people at their least discriminating become easy prey for the latest meaningless chumras and frumkeits (stringencies and religiosities) and quickly become a parody of religion rather than a genuinely religious community. And generation after generation we reduce ourselves to spiritual bankruptcy through an excess of empty piety, and God is forced to step in and “punish” us, to bring us back to a desire to see through the superficial trappings of ritual and to reach for a genuine spiritual message in our religion. As the parent disciplines the child out of true compassion and care, the stick comes and beats the dog.
12. When human nature began its journey with good intention, however far it has been corrupted since, it responds positively to adversity. The stick arouses a spark in the dog of contrition and submissiveness, looking for a master who is worth following; looking for kindness and sensitivity that can be reciprocated. The Jewish people come back to God with their figurative tail between their legs, looking for something beyond the self-congratulatory complacencies of their earlier frumkeits. The stick has reignited the spark of real spiritual yearning in the Jewish soul – the eternal flame of Torah comes and replaces the stick, making it unnecessary and irrelevant.
13. That yearning makes me receptive to true Torah learning, which has been symbolised by water in Aggadic literature throughout the ages. The water of Torah – the purest liquid, sustainer of life, that always seeks the humblest and lowest place to occupy – quenches the spark of yearning and satisfies our thirst in a meaningful and constructive way.
14. The animal that drinks the pure water of Torah becomes loyal to God in a fully discriminating way: it has the strength and determination that is not distracted by superficial fancies because it has a deep knowledge and understanding of its true master. “The ox knows its owner”, as we recite from the prophet around Tisha B’Av every year – and our soul that has been through the journey from selfishness, through corruption, to contrition and learning, knows God in a clear and truly spiritual way.
15. But along comes that most destructive of animals: man. The “slaughterer” destroys other peoples’ spiritual ambitions and achievements for the sake of trying to make himself feel better about his own spiritual poverty. With a snub, an unkind word, or by making clever fun of someone else, we destroy their feeling of achievement and self-worth and send them back to the beginning. The same power of speech that created the world, is capable of destroying it in each of us when it is used destructively as it so often is.
16. The slaughterer feels a little better when he has proved to himself his superiority over the ox-like simpleton whose religious attainments were so easy to deride. He congratulates himself on his “cleverness” – the chochom who knows better than everybody else. But he and his victim both fall prey just as easily to the Angel of Death, who levels all, and sends them back to their Maker who restarts the whole cycle at His will.
17. And is that cycle doomed to continue without end? Will there never be a more permanent resting-place for those who seek spiritual comfort? Will there never be a “Next Year in Jerusalem” – an eternal atmosphere of peace and goodwill for the whole of humanity, living side by side in recognition of a single divine presence?
18. Of course there will. And it will begin when we break the vicious cycle ourselves, by supporting each other’s spiritual ambitions and helping each other to achieve what we cannot do alone: building on each others’ strengths, supplying each others’ deficiencies and strengthening each others’ weaknesses.
19. When the clever part of my mind – the “wise” son at the Seder table – is not satisfied with simply copying the outward rituals but wants to make sure that every religious observance is properly founded in understanding of a symbolism that enhances human sensitivity and encodes spirituality into human activity; when that happens, I start out on a religious journey that can join with yours to bring a Next Year in Jerusalem for the whole world.
20. So we warn the Chochom: don’t eat after the Afikomen. Make sure the ritual of the Seder table lingers in your mind when you leave it and changes who you are. If you walk away from the Seder table the same person who sat down – you may as well not have bothered to come. But if you walk away having released yourself from Egypt – having identified a particular constraint of the material world and released yourself from it – and the lingering taste of the Afikomen changes your behaviour on the way home, in your house, in the street, shop and office the next day, then we are starting a journey that is really necessary.