It is one of the liveliest, most popular parts of the night. We all have our favourite melody, our own way of increasing the tempo and ending up breathless.
Yet when we look at it more closely we find that it piles on paradox after paradox until there are at least four paradoxes to consider and puzzle over.
The first paradox is that it concludes a very ancient ritual while it itself is quite a recent innovation.
The essentials of the Seder go back to the annual celebration held in the wilderness by the generation who were redeemed from Egypt. Much of the text of the Haggadah is found in the Mishnah and is at least 2000 years old.
The songs of the Seder, however, are much less ancient. Chad Gadya is less than four hundred years old.
The second paradox is that the song is part of a sublime religious occasion – yet, ridiculously, it is about a goat.
The sublimity of Pesach night is seen in the fact that one need not say the usual night prayers since this is Leil Shimmurim when God watches over us with special love. What has a song about goats, cats, dogs, sticks and butcher shops to do with Pesach?
The third paradox is that though Chad Gadya is a nursery rhyme, the adults all love it. It probably entered the Haggadah precisely as a nursery rhyme.
On Pesach, children must be stimulated to ask questions and parents must ensure they can answer. But as the Seder continues long after bedtime, something must be done to keep the children wake. Hence the lively songs that lead to Chad Gadya. But how to explain its appeal to adults?
An answer comes with the fourth paradox, which is that the song aims to keep the children awake, yet its theme is no kinderspiel.
One event follows another with heartless cruelty. No one escapes unscathed. The kid is harmless and innocent, but the cat consumes it. The dog takes revenge on the cat, but the dog gets a beating. The stick beats the dog, but the fire burns it. And so it proceeds.
Perhaps it is the realism of this process which attracts the adults. Who does not have moments of despair when they see how the world stumbles from one crisis to another? A cold, heartless, fate seems to drive the inexorable course of events. Chad Gadya gives the process expression.
In case all this should leave one a despondent fatalist or a cynical pessimist, the last line, the finale of the whole Haggadah, has a triumphant crescendo: “Then came the Holy One, blessed be He, and smote the angel of death, that slew the slaughterer, that slaughtered the ox, that drank the water, that quenched the fire, that burned the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the kid, that father bought for two zuzim. One only kid. One only kid.”
Chain songs are known in many cultures. Chad Gadya is unusual in that it brings God into the story, it brings God into history. It shows that actions have consequences, that every being must find that there is a higher power, that there is no deed which in the end does not lead up to God. Every deed, even as ordinary as buying a goat in the market, is part of a chain. Somewhere that chain leads to God, and those involved must answer before His throne of justice.
On the surface, it is not an ethical, a moral or a theological question when one makes an ordinary business deal. It is simply a matter of striking the best bargain. But somewhere or other, the effects of what a businessman does begin to matter in earnest. In the end he will have to answer to God who knows the deeds of men.
In politics the same applies. One nation might appear to prosper on a policy of discrimination against a portion of its population. Another nation or group of nations might seem to succeed in threatening the survival or the security, freedom or integrity of another nation. An oppressive, bullying ruler or regime might seem, for a while, to enjoy the fruits of success. But, in the end, none can escape when the Holy One, blessed be He, comes to call the slaughterer to account.
The sobering, significant lesson of Chad Gadya, as Longfellow put it, is that “though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.”