When I travel on public buses, I occasionally fall asleep during the ride. When I wake up, I’m often caught off guard and surprised that we’ve already reached our destination. My wife and I recently traveled with our sixth-grade son to Jerusalem for the award ceremony for a story-writing competition that he had won. My son’s award-winning short-story, entitled “Tears of Joy”, told the emotional drama of a Russian Jewish family who were forced to hide their Jewish identity, but eventually, against all odds, succeeded in returning to the Land of Israel. As part of the ceremony, a famous Israeli caricature artist and comic book author, Shai Charka, gave a fascinating presentation.
As a sample of his creative works, Charka related a famous story by Shai Agnon, the first Israeli to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Although the “Fable of a Goat” has a few different versions, the basic narrative is as follows: An elderly Polish Jew suffers from an illness, and the doctors prescribe him goat’s milk. He buys a goat who on occasion, mysteriously disappears, but always returns full of delicious sweet milk. The old man informs his son that he’d like to find out to where the goat disappears. The son ties a thin string to the goat’s tail, and discovers that the goat goes into an abandoned cave. After traversing the cave for a certain period of time, they come out on the other end, which turns out to be on the outskirts of the mystical city of Tzfat in the Land of Israel. Since Shai Agnon did not describe the cave and its symbolism, Charka wrote an entire comic strip on the dark cave as a metaphor for the past 2,000 years of Jewish history in the Diaspora.
The son wants to return to the exile to bring his parents with him back to Israel, but since it’s almost the start of Shabbat (Sabbath, starts Friday at sunset), he writes a note to his father which he places in the goat’s ear. In the note, the son instructs his parents to follow the tail of the goat into the magical cave which leads to Israel. When the goat returns to the father alone, he assumes that this is a sign that his son has been attacked by a wild beast. Since the goat reminds the father of his son, he has the goat slaughtered and only then discovers the note. “Woe is to me that I could have made ‘aliyah’ to the Land of Israel with just one jump, but now I’ll end my days in this exile”, says the elderly father.
This short story is loaded with powerful symbolism and raises important questions that could easily serve as the topic of a doctoral dissertation. Much ink has already been spilled in attempting to understand the “Fable of a Goat” and Shai Agnon’s other writings which are often based on themes and obscure sources in rabbinic literature. I am convinced that this parable offers a message that is more applicable today than ever.
Shai Agnon first published “Fable of a Goat” in 1925, after he had made ‘aliyah’ for the second time. This was a time when Jews from around the world had already started the process of returning to the Land of Israel and the foundations for the future Jewish State were underway. After 2,000 years of not having been spoken, the Hebrew language was being brought back to life. Like Agnon, I also made ‘aliyah’ twice, having returned to Israel for the second time seven years ago.
For most of the previous 2,000 years, coming to Israel was as much of a fantasy as finding a magical cave. But today, everything has been flipped on its head! Unfortunately, when the magical cave was rediscovered, many were like the father and missed the opportunity to return to Israel. How blessed we are to live in a generation when coming to the Land of Israel has become as easy as entering a magical cave. If you happen to fall asleep on the plane, you’ll be here as soon as you wake up!
Eric Grosser is a native of East Liverpool Ohio, and received his B.A from the Ohio State University and M.B.A from Bar-Ilan University. Eric is a certified Israel Tour Guide and founder of Holy Land Escape. He lives with his wife Einav Grosser and six children in Rehovot, Israel, and writes extensively, on current events and every-day life in modern Israel.