Table for Five: Passover
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
The wicked one, what does he say? “What is this service to you?” He says to you, but not to him. By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. So you blunt his teeth and say to him: “It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.” For me – but not for him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.(From the Passover Haggadah)
Judy Gruen, author, The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith
The treatment of the “wicked” child has always bothered me. What makes him wicked? Maybe this child is a teenager going through that irritating but common phase of being sarcastic and needing to be provocative? Second, how many parents would actually brand their child this way? Parents naturally have blind spots to their children’s failings, seeking reassurance in our own parenting by focusing exclusively on their better qualities. Finally, even if a child was truly wicked, how does this rough response help rehabilitate him?
In The Jonathan Sacks Haggadah Rabbi Sacks explains that the odd phrase “blunt his teeth,” a term of rebuke, derives from a proverb used by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” This clarified the treatment of the wicked son for me. Many things can turn a kid off to Judaism, including growing up in a home where Judaism was practiced in an insincere, shallow, hollow, or hypocritical way. Being proud of a child’s top grades in math but not in Hebrew studies; urging a child to marry Jewish without having made Judaism come alive in the family, and similar actions easily invite cynicism and estrangement. Perhaps this child’s “wickedness” is the fruit of a sour Jewish education.
The “cure” would not be “blunting his teeth” but rather, expressing real love and a commitment to exploring meaningful Judaism together.
Gershon Schusterman, Rabbi, mashpia, writer, businessman
This passage seems particularly harsh. True, the wicked son in saying “What is this service to you?” didn’t ask; he mocked. But why attack him by telling him that he’s excluded from the Jewish people?
To understand this, we need to reframe our understanding of the words “if he had been there,” which is actually inclusionary and encouraging.
There’s a major distinction between the Jewish people in the 500 years from Abraham till the giving of the Torah at Sinai and from Sinai until today. The first period represented a voluntary submission to the God of Abraham, from which one was free to resign, as indeed Ishmael and Esau did. The latter period created a binding covenant with God, from which neither could withdraw. It may be almost 2,000 years since we’ve experienced the intimacy of God’s embrace, but our persistent continuity attests to God’s supernatural providence. The Jew and his/her God are irrevocably soul-bonded, as a child is with his/her parent.
This is inherent in the phrase, if he had been there, i.e., pre-Sinai, he could have opted out and chosen not to be redeemed. But from the time the Jews became God’s holy nation and chosen people, even the wicked son has an honored place at the Seder, seated right next to the wise son. Since Sinai, a Jew is a Jew. Indelibly. Period. Every Jew should always be welcome at our Seder table, and every Jew has a place at the table of our Father in Heaven.
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea
The Jerusalem Talmud has a slightly expanded version of this question: “What is the burden with which you burden us every year?” In a superficial sense, he is referring to the burden of preparing for Pesach and the work that is involved. Why should a story from long ago demand so much trouble and inconvenience from us now? In truth however, he is referring to a multi-faceted burden. Being obligated to call out systematic demonization of a minority group for example, is burdensome, inconvenient, and hard. But as the descendants of those whom Pharaoh accused of being a dangerous fifth column, this is our burden to bear.
Making room within our society for the stranger and protecting that stranger from exploitation is also burdensome, inconvenient, and hard. But as the Torah makes explicit innumerable times, this is the burden that our historical memory places upon us. Waking up each morning with gratitude to God for the freedom, opportunity, and dignity that He granted us, and then thinking seriously about how we must justify God’s efforts through using these blessings for God’s glory, is burdensome, inconvenient and hard. But this is exactly what God placed upon our shoulders with the first words He uttered as we assembled at the foot of the mountain to hear His voice, “I am the Lord Your God who took you out of the land of Egypt.”
Live lives that affirm the worthiness of that decision! To shirk the sacred burdens of Jewish history and memory is indeed to deny that which is fundamental.
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz –Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, AJU
The Seder is full of fours – four glasses of wine, four questions, four words of redemption and four children (sons). As a child, in a house with seven kids, the assignment of the good child, the simple child, the child who didn’t know how to ask, and the wicked child – became a funny joke somehow connecting which part you read from the Haggadah to your personal character.
Each year, I would do anything I could to avoid being labeled the wicked. Branded as evil for questioning the notion of holding a Seder and, by extension, practicing Judaism, the wicked child is told he has no place in God’s redemptive plan. Skepticism, it seems, is an act so grossly wrong that it warrants continued slavery. Really?
Today, we cherish that ours is the religion that welcomes questions and invites doubt. Certainly, there are those who separate themselves from community out of malice. But, maybe this child is asking a really deep and important question: I don’t see how this religion that you love so much is relevant to me? So many young Jews have and are asking this question. And, if our only answer is to admonish, we will forever lose them.
If only we helped this child understand ‘it is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt’ as an invitation to community, to hearing the call to partner with God to bring redemption, and to the promise of hope no matter the circumstances.
David Brandes, Screenwriter and Producer
Isn’t branding this son “wicked’ a bit of overkill? After all, he dutifully shows up for the yearly Seder and even participates, albeit on his own terms…. And why threaten this beleaguered soul that “redemption” would be denied him had he been in Egypt? After all, many evil sorts, including the notorious Korach were redeemed.
Wouldn’t it be more helpful to just call the son “skeptical” and hope he shows up again next year? What the wayward son doesn’t understand is the father’s warning (had he been in Egypt he would not have been redeemed) is not meant as a put-down. It is not metaphorical, but historical. Had this son been in Egypt at the time, with the same “this service has nothing to do with me” attitude, he would not have marked his doorpost with lambs’ blood… As a result, he would not have escaped the angel of death. He would have perished.
In today’s terms the wicked son is probably more self-destructive than wicked. Even though he shows up, he does not ask questions like the other sons, he provokes, challenges and disrupts. His attitude separates him from his family and from the Jewish people. His anger has closed down any religious imagination he might have had, and he retreats into his lonely self. Maybe he should be renamed the “sad” son. In these scary times a modern ‘angel of death’ lingers at our doorposts.
Let’s not let it disrupt our Seders or our spirit. Chag Sameyach!
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