We’re bringing back – at least for this week – one of the oldest Jewish parodies off a secularly popular song. In some Chabad Houses this is still sung quite regularly. You can find one version of the lyrics here:
First a few words about the original. There’s a lot of urban legend that the 1960’s “Puff the Magic Wagon” by Peter Paul & Mary is an analogy or has references to the substance that has recently (now in 2021) become legal in NY State. The songwriters and singers dispute that vehemently, and either way that’s not the point we’re going with this. What is important is to know that this song by Peter Yarrow, based on a poem by Leonard “Lenny” Lipton, a college student at Cornell who wrote the poem that the song is based on – speaks of a frolicking dragon, a happy playful dragon.
This is a dramatic shift from the usual dragons throughout literature. Most dragons are fiery fearsome dangerous creatures, they are the terrible horrible monsters for heroes to vanquish, the proverbial “slay the dragon”. This song emphasizes a totally different dragon, much like Barney the Dinosaur softened the image of dinosaurs.
This is important in Chassidic perspective as well. One of the key perspective shifts of Chassidus is that our evil inclination is also a full bodied soul that can and should be harnessed and channeled into positive energy. It’s not just a dragon to be slayed and destroyed, but one whom we can engage like “little Rabbi Goldberg” can frolic playfully and joyfully in the synagogue! There is so much Chassidus on this approach.
But it is still a dragon! This is no Barney! Don’t take this guy for granted. See that middle stanza how Puff the Kosher Dragon reacted to those who do things just for spite. They aren’t with us anymore…
Now, there were some people, who did things just for spite
They’d curse Jews and attack them, just to get into a fight
When Puff the dragon heard this, He roared a mighty roar
Now, those wicked people aren’t with us any more.
A word about Puff’s transformation. See this stanza about Puff’s daily activities:
Then Puff became Barmitzvah, laid tefillin every day
Wrapped up in his tallit, that’s the way he used to pray.
Made brachot before eating, bentched after every meal
Imagine how religious it made that dragon feel.
That feeling religious? It’s the last line of a busy stanza of Mitzvah activity. Before that, there’s putting on Tefillin every day, blessings before eating & bentsching afterwards. Feelings will come eventually, but it starts with the Mitzvah actions.
A little Talmud-ese is necessary to appreciate the last stanza. There’s a logic tool called “Kal V’Chomer”. In Latin it is called “a fortiori” and in simple English it’s “all the more so”. It is a minor-major premise. If a weaker man can lift the box, certainly a stronger man can. If a amateur player can hit a ball that far, certainly a professional major leaguer can.
Oh, you who may be listening may think I’m making fun
But deep down in this story is a moral for everyone.
If Puff can wear kippah, keep Torah and kosher too,
Then we can learn like Puff did how to be a real good Jew.
What’s the inference “If Puff can…. then we can..”? This implies that Puff has some weakness or drawback or limitation that we do not have! Perhaps it is that Puff isn’t human, or that he’s fictional, or that he’s different? Or maybe its a reference to the dragon transformation. Someone who can be aggressive and harmful, fiery and ferocious, and yet turns it all around to channel all that into a positive force for good, then we – who have such more more innate goodness, without all that (though we certainly have some!) negative baggage, can do at least the same!
Sometimes we feel that the odds are too stacked against us, that there’s too much peer pressure or its too hard to be different. Sometimes its our lack of Jewish education that stymies us, or feelings of I’m not good enough, or I wasn’t raised with this — all that can get in the way. But as the song says, the “moral is for everyone.” If a dragon can do it, we can. Fictional dragons aside, many people have overcome steeper and harder obstacles, so we certainly can overcome and transform our own.
We first looked into this song because it is Parsha Shemini that lists the signs and identifiers for Kosher animals, fish and birds. So the song titled “Puff the Kosher Dragon” came to mind.
But there’s another connection, too. This Shabbat Shemini 5781 (2021) is also the 28th of Nissan, a 30 year anniversary of an unforgettable landmark talk of the Rebbe, on the 28th of Nissan 5751 (1991). In this talk the Rebbe dramatically urged and encouraged everyone to do everything possible to hasten and clamor for the coming of Moshiach. For Chabad Chassidim, this date reminds us to redouble our efforts and to increase in our studies and awareness about Moshiach and the ultimate redemption.
So one Moshiach thought about dragons. You know the famous “lion and lamb” imagery. There’s an old discussion in rabbinic writings (based on verses from the prophets) as to whether wild and dangerous beasts will be eradicated when Moshiach comes, or only that their dangerous traits will be transformed. “Puff the Kosher Dragon” takes the latter transformative approach. It’s not about slaying the dragon and moving further into the labyrinth without him in the way, but instead, reaching out as “little Rabbi Goldberg” did, lovingly and with Schapiro’s wine, and giving it a Bar-Mitzvah, finding it a Jewish dragon bride, and all that.