Q: You once told a sad and poignant story about a goat whose magnificent horns were given away, piece by piece. I think you attributed it to a particular Hasidic rabbi. Would you please remind me where that story comes from, perhaps point me to a source?
— S from Melville, via email
A: The story of the sacred goat is a story recorded by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in his edited compilation, “Tales of the Hasidim.” It is attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) who was called “The Kotzker Rebbe.” Hasidism is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that emphasizes joyous worship over scholarly rigor. Hasidism is itself divided around the teachings of various charismatic rabbis, called affectionately “Rebbes”. The followers of a Rebbe are his “Hasidim”.
Of all the early Hasidic Rebbes, the Kotzker was the most troubled. He spent the last 20 years of his life in seclusion, seeing only a few Hasidim. One of his visitors was Rabbi Yitzhak of Vorki, who said upon entering his room, “Peace be with you, Rebbe.” The Kotzker angrily said, “Why do you say Rebbe to me? I’m the goat! I’m the sacred goat.” Then he told this story:
“An old Jew once lost his snuffbox made of horn on his way to the house of study. He wailed: ‘Just as if the dreadful exile weren’t enough, this must happen to me! Oh me, oh my, I’ve lost my snuffbox made of horn!’ And then he came upon the sacred goat. The sacred goat was pacing the earth, and the tips of his black horns touched the stars. When he heard the old Jew lamenting, he leaned down to him, and said, ‘Cut a piece from my horns, whatever you need to make a new snuffbox.’ The old Jew did this, made a new snuffbox and filled it with tobacco. Then he went to the house of study and offered everyone a pinch. They snuffed and snuffed, and everyone who snuffed it cried: ‘Oh, what wonderful tobacco! It must be because of the box. Oh, what a wonderful box! Wherever did you get it?’ So the old man told them about the good sacred goat. And then one after another they went out into the forest and looked for the sacred goat. The sacred goat was pacing the earth and the tips of his black horns touched the stars. One after another the people went up to him and begged permission to cut off a bit of his horns. Time after time the sacred goat leaned down to grant the request. Box after box was made and filled with tobacco. The fame of the boxes spread far and wide. At every step he took, the sacred goat met someone who asked for a piece of his horns. Now the sacred goat still paces the earth — but he has no horns.”
Now, I normally do not interpret the stories I tell. Telling them is enough for me. After all, there are many meanings in every great story and the Kotzker Rebbe’s story of the sacred goat is an exceedingly great story. It raises the question in the minds and hearts of all teachers and parents, all healers and caregivers — those who willingly cut off their horns to give to others — is my sacrifice worth it?
The goat was undeniably giving and gracious, but it gave away its sacred horns to make snuff boxes! What a waste of good horns. On the other hand we worship a God who gives us salvation even though we neither deserve nor appreciate it sufficiently. There is a wonderful children’s book by Shel Silverstein, “The Giving Tree,” that bears a striking resemblance to the story of the sacred goat. It is about a tree that allows herself to be cut down to a stump because of the incessant demands of an ungrateful boy. Is this the act of a loving parent or is this the foolish confusion of self-sacrifice with self-destruction? My view of the goat and the tree is that they are noble gifts of one’s substance to help others. Remember, the goat is still called the sacred goat even after its horns have been cut off.
When I see the sacrifices parents and grandparents and siblings and caregivers and healers and clergy and physicians and teachers make every day, I am overwhelmed by the number of sacred goats who still pace the earth. We are all here because we have been given pieces of sacred horns that remind us always to reach for the heavens and to freely give what we have been given.