The miracle of the goats

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On seder nights, after the fourth cup of wine, we always try to sing “Chad Gadya.” It’s a silly, deep song about a little goat that my abba bought for two zuzim.

This year, my family was blessed to have not one, but three little goats join us for the seder. We are kidding for the first time, and we are only in it for the milk. So no, we will not be roasting one on a spit. Incidentally, if we were, it would have been our unblemished male, whom the kids lovingly named Jonnie (see picture).

Why are we raising kids in our backyard homestead by the shul? Well, consider that they provide delicious milk for yogurt and cheese, they love snuggling, they make us laugh every day, they ate up the thorn bushes and poison ivy in the backwoods so the kids can play there, and they provide the best fertilizer for our garden.

Did you know that the Yiddish word “bupkes” (as in “for all my efforts, I got bupkes!”) literally means “goat dung,” because it was everywhere in the shtetl. As it turns out, bupkes is really great for our garden. This is living proof that you really can get something from nothing (bupkes)! And on top of all of that, goats were the close traveling companions of my ancestors Abraham and Sarah.

When Joseph’s brothers were asked, “What is your occupation?,” they said to Pharaoh, “Your servants are shepherds, both we and our forefathers.”

Moshe grew up as an Egyptian prince not a shepherd. He only discovered his roots when he ran off to the wilderness to live with the Midianites. Moshe apprenticed himself to his father-in-law Yitro and learned to herd sheep and goats.

The Midrash says that, “Moshe was herding the flocks of Yitro in the wilderness when a kid ran away. He pursued it until he found a rocky ledge. After discovering the ledge, he came upon a stream of water beside which the lost kid stood drinking.” At this, he said, “I didn’t know that you ran away because of thirst. You must be tired.” So he carried it back on his shoulders. The Holy Blessed be He, declared, “You have shown compassion in tending the flock belonging to mortal man. Thus shall you tend My flock [Israel].” (Exodus Rabbah 2:2)

To help the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt and return to the shepherding ways of Abraham and Sarah, God instructs every family to roast a whole lamb or kid over the fire and paint its blood on the doorposts of their home. While the Angel of Death skipped over their homes, they ate the Pesach meat with raw bitter greens, wrapped in the humble flatbread of shepherds.

God instructs them to “eat it with your staff in hand, sandals on your feet, and your loins girded.” When they finally left their Egyptian homes, they must have looked back at the blood on the entrances and felt tremendous gratitude to have survived the plagues. It was as if God’s flock was expelled from the narrow womb of Egypt and out through the bloody doorways.

The mystery and wonder of birth is that it really feels like something came from nothing. On the night that our goat kids were born, my human kids kept saying, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe she had three babies! Before we had two goats and now we have five!” Every year on Pesach, we retell our birth story as a holy nation and we marvel at the constant rebirth and survival as a people.

Why do we dip twice on Pesach night? We dip the karpas in salt water at the beginning of the seder to reenact when Joseph’s brothers dipped his tunic in goat blood. They sold him into slavery and lied to their father Jacob telling him it was Joseph’s blood. The first dipping is in salt water to remind us of the hatred and lies that sent us down into Egypt.

Later, we dip the bitter herb in sweet charoset. This dipping reenacts the night of the Exodus, when we dipped the hyssop branches in goat or lamb’s blood and painted the doorposts to protect from the Angel of Death. This second dipping is bitter dipped in sweet to remind us that our people endured 400 years of slavery in a foreign land and were reborn as a free and holy people on their way home. And then, after too much matzah ball soup, brisket, and wine we get a little silly and sing the song, “Chad gadya, chad gadya! One little goat… one little goat!”

AARON PHILMUS is the Rabbi at Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.