Some find it surprising that at the Passover Seder, we discuss weighty themes of slavery and freedom and redemption, but the culmination, the grand finale of the entire seder, is Had Gadya - basically the Jewish version of “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly.”

In fact, there has been a lot of confusion in Jewish tradition about how this folk song for children managed to work its way into the Haggadah, such that it is now sung in virtually every Jewish community around the world: “My father bought a little goat for two gold coins. Then came a cat that ate the goat - that my father bought for two gold coins. Then came a dog and bit the cat - that ate the goat - that my father bought for two gold coins. Then came a stick and beat the dog - that bit the cat......” etc. etc. And the song concludes, ten verses later: “And then came God, the Holy Blessed One, and slaughtered the Angel of Death - who slaughtered the butcher who slaughtered the ox that drank the water that put out the fire that burnt the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two gold coins.”

A wide array of commentaries in our tradition endeavor to explain exactly what this passage is doing in the Passover Seder at all.

Some people choose to understand Had Gadya theologically. They say that the point of the song is that at the end, God slaughters the Angel of Death. If God is truly all-powerful, then God can triumph even over death and bring the world into the era of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead.

Others interpret Had Gadya as an extensive allegory for the history of the Jewish people. The Jewish people, of course, are the goat. Over and over, the Jewish people are oppressed and persecuted and burned and extinguished and slaughtered, just as happens in the song. But ultimately God rescues us and saves us from our oppressors.

Another explanation was presented by the eminent Israeli Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. He remembers in his childhood trying to make sense of this song, concluding that this is really a song about vengeance. The cat eats the goat - but then the dog bites the cat. But then the stick comes and beats the dog. And the stick is angry at the dog for biting the cat. But then there’s another reprisal: next we have the fire, burning the stick and so on and so on… until things get so out of hand that God has to step in.

The song, then, is a classic demonstration of how a cycle of violence can so easily and quickly spiral out of control. What was once a small, local conflict between the cat and the goat has now involved, and destroyed, two other animals, three objects, one person, and one angel, and God has to step in and keep the peace. But all these efforts don’t bring the goat back to life, nor do they necessarily function to deter the cat, or anyone else, from eating other goats in the future. The song reminds us that revenge is, plain and simple, a failed strategy most of the time.

Had Gadya reminds us that no matter who is more at fault, the cycle of revenge is likely to continue until someone breaks the cycle. And the longer it takes to realize this, the more people die.

May the values presented in the Passover Seder, and in Had Gadya, help us and others to move our world in the direction of peace.

haggadah Section: Commentary / Readings
Source: Rabbi Rob Scheinberg