What ram and goat stories tell us about redemption

Genesis 18:1-22, 24
II Kings 4:1-37

There are no tales about dogs and cats; occasionally there is a story about a fish. But Jewish folklore is filled with an overwhelmingly large number of wistful, longingly melancholy, other-worldly stories and rituals that always involve a goat or a ram, and all of them always reflect a sense of gnawing loss.

On Rosh HaShanah, for example, we read the troubling story of the binding of Isaac, the centerpiece of Vaera, this week’s Torah portion. It ends with a ram being substituted for the sacrifice of Isaac. Although Isaac was saved at the very last moment, Jews have not always been as fortunate. On Yom Kippur, hoping for forgiveness, Jews recall the ritual practice of sending off the scapegoat, Azazel, into the wilderness with the sins of the penitent pinned to its coat.

At Passover, a goat materializes at the end of the seder in the words of “Chad Gadyah” (“An Only Kid”). Although this song appears to be a charming Jewish version of the nursery rhyme “I know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” it is in reality a profound and stunning example of a rabbinic text that deals with a series of losses as well as the hope that one day redemption and eternal life will reign supreme. It records how, in rapid succession, each of the protagonists met an untimely end, from the kid goat, eaten by the cat, to the slaughterer, killed by the angel of death. However, this seemingly innocent rhyme concludes with the words: “Then came God, the Holy One, and killed the angel of death.”

“Chad Gadyah” champions the notion that God will slay death and we of flesh and blood will no longer be limited by mortal years. Thus, goats and rams, invested with allegorical meaning symbolic of our collective and individual longings, are reflected in Jewish literature, including in the late Israeli writer S. Y. Agnon’s story “On Account of a Goat.”

An old, sick man was ordered by his doctor to drink goat’s milk. He bought a goat, but the goat disappeared a few days later and was nowhere to be found. When the goat finally returned, her udders were full of milk that had the taste of paradise. She continued to disappear periodically, and each time she reappeared, her udders were full of milk that was sweeter than honey.

One day, the old man asked his son to discover where the goat went. The son tied a cord to the goat’s tail and when he noticed that the goat was about to leave, he took hold of the cord and followed her.

Soon they reached a cave, and after proceeding for a while, they emerged into a beautiful land that turned out to be Israel. The son decided to remain behind, but he wanted his father to come there, too. He sent a note stating where he was and advised his father to follow the goat. He rolled up the note and inserted it in the goat’s ear, thinking that when the goat returned, his father would stroke her head, and as her ears wiggled, the note would fall out.

Unfortunately that is not what happened. The father did not stroke the goat, her ears did not wiggle, the note did not fall out, and the father went into mourning for his lost son.

Because the goat would constantly remind him of his loss, he decided to have her slaughtered. When she was being skinned, the note was discovered. When the old man read it, he realized that he lost his son, the goat and its milk, and the opportunity to go to Israel.

Vaera reminds a student of the Torah that sorrowful accounts of rams and goats have become metaphors for the Jewish people. Centuries of contemplating the substitution of a ram for Isaac as well as other haunting goat and ram narratives have given rise to the hope that, even at the last minute, Jews who were being pursued by oppressors might realize the rescue and redemption that often proved to be elusive. In addition to somber reminders of failed attempts of liberation and emancipation, these animal tales continued to offer the hope that one day Jews would be a free people in a land of their own.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.