Passover melody reflects yearning for an afterlife

Exodus 33:12-34:26

Numbers 28:19-25

Ezekiel 37:1-15

"Chad Gadya" (Just One Kid), the lively folk melody used to entertain the juvenile set at Passover, contains an overlooked but profound message.

Its obscure agenda is found in the last stanza: "Then came the Holy One who killed the angel of death/ who killed the slaughterer/ who killed the ox/ that drank the water/ that quenched the fire/ that burnt the stick/ that beat the dog/ that bit the cat/ that ate the kid/ that my father bought for two zuzim,/ chad gadya, chad gadya."

This song, with its cruel scenarios of goats, cats, dogs, sticks and butchers harming one another, teaches that no one escapes punishment. But this deceptively simple folk song is more than just a notice that God will judge all. It is a message that one day God will slay death and that humanity will no longer be limited by the sweep of the grim reaper's scythe.

Interpreters of Parashat Vayechi offer a hint about this end-of-death phenomenon. Both Jacob, who requested to be buried with his parents, and Joseph, who instructed his children to carry his bones back to Canaan when God returned them to the Promised Land, never questioned death's finality.

However, later generations of rabbis concluded that death was not the end for Jacob and Joseph. By the rise of the talmudic period, when "Chad Gadya" was composed, the rabbis had developed a refined notion that death would be extinguished with the arrival of the Messiah. They included in the liturgy the central rabbinic concept of techiyat hamaytim — God's revival of the dead. It provided an answer to the question that every culture attempts to explain: Is death the end?

No matter how the rabbis read the text, the Bible is surprisingly silent on the issue of escaping death, providing only a few references to who might have done so: "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, for God took him" (Genesis 5:24), and "…a fiery chariot with fiery horses suddenly appeared and…Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind" (II Kings 2:11).

Biblical references to the revival of the dead are equally limited. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God who "will destroy death forever" (Isaiah 25:8) with these moving words: "Oh, let Your dead revive!/ Let corpses arise!/ Awake and shout for joy,/ You who dwell in the dust! –/ For Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth;/ You make the land of the shades come to life" (Isaiah 26:19).

Ezekiel offered the most stunning example of the revival of the dead in the well-known image of the valley of the dry bones, intended as a prediction of the revival of the destroyed Israelite kingdom:

"Thus said the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again. I will lay sinews upon you and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am the Lord!

"…suddenly there was a sound of rattling, and the bones came together, bone to matching bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had grown, and skin had formed over them…The breath entered them, and they came to life and stood up on their feet" (Ezekiel 37:1-10).

One other reference is found in the Book of Daniel: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life" (12:2). This line, mechaye ha-maytim, was incorporated into the liturgy's Amidah by the rabbis.

These references, accompanied by the breakdown of society under the Roman rule, contributed to the crystallization of the idea of the Messiah and enabled Jews to carry on even in the face of great suffering.

Messianism emerged from hopelessness and despair, becoming the symbol of hope and the promise that one day the work of creating a more perfect world would be finished. While it might seem out of step with modern life, the message that human misery is not inevitable and can be overcome is an important one.

For some, like the Baal Shem Tov, the responsibility to fulfill the mission of the Messiah is a personal one: "The coming of the Messiah does not depend upon anything supernatural, rather it depends upon human growth and self-transformation. The world will only be transformed when people realize that the Messiah is not someone other than themselves."

Imagine what the world would be like if every person viewed his or her neighbor as a Messiah!