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Cantorial Comments - 8th Day of Passover                        April 27, 2019 - 22 Nisan 5779

04/24/2019 03:27:51 PM


“Sometimes, even to live is an act of courage.”

                             --Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4-65 CE), Roman Philosopher


The Mishnah says that the most critical part of the Passover Seder is the part where we point to each of the three main items on the table, that is, the shank-bone, the matzah and the bitter herbs and expound upon their meanings.  It even says in the Haggadah that whosoever does not discuss the meaning of these three items has not fulfilled the primary purpose of the seder.  By contrast, at the Burko Family seder, I think that the most important part has to be the section at the very end where we all sing the children’s songs like Echad Mi Yodeah (Who Knows One).  In the most holy of rituals, we go around the room and each person (or small group) contributes by singing their ‘number’, and while fighting exhaustion and the effects of four cups of wine, we must remain vigilant to reprise our parts whenever our number is mentioned in the song.  It is a sacred ceremony of hilarity without which the seder would be completely ruined.


Traditionally, the songs at the end of the Passover seder are intended to entice children to survive the long night’s ritual, keep them awake and alert in anticipation of the fun sing-along at the end of the ordeal. But like everything else at the seder, even the children’s songs are much more than simple fun, and are indeed packed with symbolism and carefully considered themes.  “Echad Mi Yodeah” is a fairly comprehensive overview of the basic Jewish principles of faith and cultural history, while the song “Adir Hu” describes the very nature of the Jewish concept of God.  The deepest song of them all, however, is also seemingly the most benign.  Chad Gadya, the poor little goat who is eaten by the cat, who is eaten by the dog, who is beaten by the stick, seems to be the innocent Hebrew equivalent of the English song, “There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly”.  However, when we scratch a little beneath the surface, this song describes the nature of Jewish existence over the millennia, and the indisputable miracle that despite all odds, the Jewish people continue to exist today whilst every other mighty ancient civilization is no more.


In the song, Chad Gadya, Israel is represented by the goat. The first nation in history to attack and destroy Israel was Assyria, who defeated the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, scattering the ten lost tribes.  In our song, Assyria is represented by the cat who ate the goat.  However, Assyria was, in turn, defeated and destroyed by the Babylonians at the Battle of Ninveh in 612 BCE. Babylon is represented by the dog who ate the cat.  Babylon was conquered by Persia (the stick who beat the dog) in 539 BCE under the command of Cyrus the Great at the Battle of Opis.  Persia was later defeated by the Greeks (the fire that burned the stick), who were later conquered by the Romans (the water that quenched the fire).  Following the schism of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem fell under Byzantine control, but in 637 CE, the quickly growing Muslim Empire (the ox that drank the water), under Caliph Umar, pushed the Byzantines out of Jerusalem and all the way back to Constantinople.  Later still, Jerusalem was reconquered by the Crusaders (the butcher that slew the ox) in the name of the Pope, and conquered yet again by the Turks (the Angel of Death who slew the butcher) eventually becoming the Ottoman Empire.  Strangely, the song first appeared in Haggadot in the year 1590 which forecast God (HaKadosh Baruch Hu) defeating the Angel of Death, and if you don’t count the brief period during which Britain administered the territory of Palestine following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, it means that the Ottomans were the last actual rulers of Israel before its independence as the Jewish State in 1948. Neat, right?


The song is a round-about way of saying that despite all odds, the Jewish people endured.  Despite persecution, defeat, slaughter and conquest, we’re still here; and in the end, that’s what counts.  That’s how we win.


This week, we share this sentiment with many others around the world who also stand for what is good and decent in humanity.  As of the moment that I am writing this article, the death toll from the multiple ISIS attacks in Sri Lanka is up to 321.  Christians were attacked as they observed the Easter festival in their places of worship, and our community joins with them, and truly all human beings of conscience in mourning.  As Jews, we are reminded of the recent attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  Muslims are reminded of the recent attack on a mosque in New Zealand.


The Jewish people offer this thought to those who are suffering this week.  Easter and Passover share the common theme of rebirth.  It is a time when we remember that our respective peoples suffered greatly, but endured nonetheless.  The day will come when evil is banished from this earth, but we know all too well that it is not today.  In the meantime, we must not lose sight of who we are, and continue to worship and celebrate life according to the way that honours our values.  We do this because that is how we defeat evil.  That is how humanity wins.


Shabbat Shalom, Mo’adim L’simcha,

Mon, July 13 2020 21 Tammuz 5780