The Talmud relates the following story: At one time a king and queen were disputing as to the merits of which was a better food – goat meat or lamb. The king insisted that goat meat was certainly superior while the queen argued that lamb was tastier, more succulent and of superior quality to goat meet.

The question then arose who was to decide the dispute so it was suggested that the decision be left to the high-priest, who at that time was Issachar, the man of the village of Barkai. If anyone should be an expert on meat it would be the one who would bring daily sacrifices, sometimes goats, sometimes lamb, other times other animals and eating from most of them. He listened to the arguments of the queen extolling the merits of lamb then he heard what the king had to say about the advantages of goat meat. Thereafter he looked to the king, gesticulated with his hand as such and said, “Ah! If a kid was better it would have been used as the daily sacrifice on the altar. Yet as you well know G‑d’s instruction is that the daily sacrifice to be brought before opening the Temple service daily, and the sacrifice brought to close the service daily: “You shall bring one lamb in the morning and one lamb toward the evening.”

Victory was handed to the queen. What does any sore loser do? Said the king, “because he was disrespectful and gestured as such with his right hand, let it be cut off,” which it summarily was.

Comes along the Talmudic sage Rabina and declares that this punishment was deserved for Issachar because he gave the wrong answer: For the Torah is very categorical in stating, 'If he offer a sheep for his offering,' etc., and 'If a goat be his offering,' etc., thus showing that both are equal."

What really is transpiring in this story? Apart from a medieval tale of intrigue what deeper message is being conveyed? Why is this argument between king and queen so important to them that they need to summon an expert to resolve their dispute? Sounds like a dream job for a Rabbi. The wife says she prefers Sollys the husband says Kai Feng, send the Rabbi in to sample both and issue his ruling. Why does the king react as bitterly as he does by dismembering the High Priest and why would another Rabbi come along and insist he deserved it because he made a mistake?

Comes along the Magid of Mezritch and in a few brief enigmatic words sums it all up: “This is the story of Jacob and Esau.” For many generations great scholars and Chassidic masters grappled over the meaning of those words each offer a different perspective perhaps reflecting different realities in their own era. This is a suggested contemporary explanation:

A sheep is a docile animal who roams always as part of a flock. He is a conformist who goes with the flow his bleat is soft as he quietly complies with what is requested of him. A goat on the other is aggressive, often rebellious, doing its own thing. Threaten it, and it can gore you with its horns, It’s “beh” is more vociferous than the sheep’s “meh.” Goats are browsers, jumpers, and see things as better on the other side of the fence.  Goats always find a way out of the enclosed pasture, while sheep remain content inside.  Sheep with their very thick wool tend to repel dirt and don’t require the more frequent cleansing necessary for a goat.

Yakov ish tam yoshev ohalim – Jacob was a docile man who remained within the tents – he was content inside. He stayed with the pack – his people, an unyielding conformist to all the dictates and mandates of his faith. Esav yoideah tzayid ish hasodeh – Esau was the hunter, the aggressive one, who went it alone, over the fence and into the fields. Indeed the Torah calls Esau ish sair, which translates literally as a “hairy man,” though the word sair can also translate as goat.

Rivkah oheves es Yakov says the Torah: “Rebecca loved Jacob.” The queen said that lamb is better. It is better to be conformist – to adhere unquestioningly to life’s demands and to G‑d’s call. The world is full of risk. We need to concentrate our efforts on insulating our children – protecting them from exposure. Contact with the threatening elements and impediments that infest our society can only be counterintuitive and counterproductive. The goat has no real place in Yiddishkeit and if it jumps the fence, then cut it loose – let it go.

Vaye’ehav Yitzchak es Esav – Yitzchak – Isaac – the king loved Esau – he prefers the goat – the non-conformist – that’s where we have to concentrate our energies, that’s the soul we have to seek out, to nurture, to develop, to expose the latent potential contained within. Esau may be a goat but he is not beyond redemption. So he isn’t content within – he likes to jump the fence – but what he does on the other side comes down to how you regard him and how much attention you pay to him. Left to his own devices he can wreck havoc. But if you reach out to him then you can harness him to a point where rather than goring everything in his wake, he could make a very real difference in his own way in his slice of the world.

So what is better – lamb or goat? This is the big debate between the king and queen – between Isaac and Rebecca, and to one extent or another, this debate rages on in our present day and age between those who choose to concentrate all their energies on the insular life and those who insist we have to step out into the world and confront our reality.

The queen insists the ghetto walls have to be built ever higher and woe betide those goats that choose to jump over. Once you cross the line you’re on your own. We have plenty of Jacobs to work with - we cannot go after the Esau gone astray.

The king insists no matter that goat is part of the flock. Even as he jumps the wall, the family is incomplete when one brother has gone astray. Yes we have lots to do with the lambs, with the Jacobs, but someone’s got to go over the wall and after the goat. Because when you find him, there’s something incredible inside him that will benefit the entire flock.

Comes along Isachar the High Priest - the bastion of spirituality – G‑d’s ambassador as it were to the people and declares “lamb is better.” After all G‑d instructs that the lamb be brought close; that it be brought on the altar in service to Him daily – this is with which we begin and end our day. But this High Priest was wrong – oh so wrong – and he paid a heavy price with his very hand.

The unique quality of every Cohen, as inherited from the very first one, Aaron the High Priest was to “love peace and pursue peace, love all of creation and bring them close to the Torah.” Yes, the end goal is to bring people back onto the altar of G‑d, to bring them closer, more in touch with their roots – but we don’t restrict that effort, we don’t limit that energy to just those who are already conformists. Ohev es habriyois – love all of creation – “if a sheep be his offering…if a goat be his offering,” both are equal. Both deserve our time as they are integral components in the kaleidoscope of Jewish experience and endeavor.

The common analogy for the right hand is as per the words of our Sages: Yemin mikareves – “the right hand draws near.” It symbolizes the notion of bringing closer those who might have otherwise drifted – jumped the fence – abandoned the flock – wandered from their source. When you lose sight of the message – when you forget what you represent as a High Priest – reaching out, not just to the Jacobs but also to the Esau’s – especially to the Esau’s – then you’ve forfeited your right hand. Esau, like Jacob, is part of the family – and when we lose sight of that, then to one extent or another we all bear the consequences

 Next time you’re in a good kosher restaurant or sitting at a function and you’re tucking into a nice lamb chop – you’ll know that’s because it’s all that’s available on the menu. Spare a thought about the goats out there as well and wonder where they might be. Not that I’m looking to spoil your appetite. It’s just that none of us can feel satisfied until goats are brought back onto the metaphorical menu of Yiddishkeit as well.