Dona, Dona - The Mystical Meaning
By Mendel Weinberger
There is old Jewish folk song called Dona Dona that I learned as a child in summer camp and it calls to me now. Is it just nostalgia or is there a deeper message? First let's review the words, and then look beneath the surface to find the hidden treasure of meaning.
On a wagon bound for market
There's a calf with a mournful eye
High above him flies the swallow
Winging swiftly thru the sky.
How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer's night
Dona dona, dona etc.
"Stop complaining," said the farmer
"Who told you a calf to be?
Why don't you have wings to fly with
Like the swallow so proud and free?"
Calves are easily bound and slaughtered
Never knowing the reason why
But whoever treasures freedom
Like the swallow must learn to fly.
At first glance, this song seems like a light-hearted, somewhat sentimental dialogue between a farmer and his calf on the way to the slaughterhouse. The calf is sad because he is going to die and the swallow is flying overhead, indifferent to the calf's plight. The farmer rebukes the calf, criticizing him for being one and goading him into growing wings like the swallow, as if he could. The song concludes with a wry observation about the helplessness of calves and how easy it is to end their short lives. The final line, however, does give a hint that this song is not talking about a calf and a swallow, but about freedom. Many folk singers have sung this song, from Yiddish sopranos to klezmer bands to Joan Baez who sang it in English. They all find in it a universal message about the victims of oppression and the desire for political freedom. But there a deeper message in this song that points towards spiritual liberation.
The calf in the song represents the body, the seat of desire. The body and the animal soul that enlivens it desire pleasure, wealth, and honor. But like an animal, the body is a slave to these desires. The calf bound on the way to market to be slaughtered is a metaphor for the body's journey towards death. The calf ( i.e. the body) is mournful because it has become attached to life and pleasure and fears the unknown of the next world.
The swallow winging swiftly through the sky represents the soul. The Divine Soul is a part of G-d's Being and is not bound by the material limitations of the physical world. It is free to soar in the spiritual realms high above the earthly one. The soul does not fear death for it is more at home in heaven than on earth.
The chorus to the song speaks of the winds laughing. From the perspective of heaven, man's struggle to fulfill the desires of the body and animal soul must appear quite absurd. But why are the winds laughing the whole day and only half the summer's night? According to the Torah, the night is divided into two parts. The first part of the night, from sunset until midnight is considered a time of din, of strict judgment. This is not the time for laughter; rather it is a time of taking account of the day's actions and reflecting on them. The second part of the night, from midnight until dawn is a time of chesed, of kindness and this kindness continues throughout the day. The summer's day is when the daylight is at its maximum and the night is relatively short. What the song is saying is that the character of G-d, the spiritual creative force of the universe is primarily loving kindness. The Creator is patient with our failures and struggles and His kindness is present most of the time, but not all the time. There is a time of judgment at the beginning of the night.
The farmer represents the tzadik, the holy, righteous man who scolds us saying, "Who told you a calf to be?" Why do you identify yourself with your body? If you do, you are no better off than a calf on the way to be slaughtered for you will be bound by your desires and destined to die. "Why don't you have wings to fly with?" Connect to your soul and transcend your physical limitations. Fly in the spiritual realm and feel your soul's power.
The final stanza is the teaching for all men. If you remain unconscious of the soul, you will be easily bound and slaughtered. You will live enslaved to your desires and your body will die without understanding the purpose of your life. But if you treasure freedom, the freedom of the soul, then you will learn to transcend the limitations of the body and small mind and you will understand your life from a higher perspective. You will be free.
Lyrics by Aaron Zeitlin, music by Sholom Secunda, (1940/41).
from the June 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine