Searching for the Wicked Child

Let us explore the question and answer which the author of the <I>Haggadah</I> ascribes to the "wicked child".

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Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
One of the most delightful parts of the seder is the portion concerning the four children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple or naive child and the child who does not know what to ask. In my former life as the rabbi of a West Side Manhattan Congregation, where I conducted a community Seder each year, I took what almost bordered on sadistic pleasure in doling out each of these four readings to choice members of our synagogue - and sometimes suffered consequences as a result. At our present family and extended family Seder - children, grand-children, in-laws and students, which make for 50 plus participants - I merely ask for volunteers to explicate the personal or contemporary significance of which ever one of the four children-questioners the participant would feel most comfortable with. To my perennial surprise, the "wicked child" gets the most raised hands!

Let us explore the question and answer which the author of the Haggadah ascribes to the "wicked child".
What does the wicked child say? 'What is this service to you?' - to you, and not to him. And because he has taken himself out of the category (of Israel), he has denied the basic principle (of Judaism). You must then soften (with warmth) his sharp teeth (or tongue), and say to him: 'Because of this (service) did G-d do (all these miracles) for me when I came out of Egypt' -for me and not for him; Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.
It is fascinating to note that the exact words of this question is derived from the Biblical text itself:
And it shall be when you come to the land (of Israel)... and you observe this service (of the Paschal Sacrifice), and then, when your children shall say to you, 'What is this service to you,' you shall say to them, 'It is a Paschal (Passover or love) Sacrifice to the Lord, who has passed over (or loved) the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He brought plague (of the death of the first-born) upon Egypt, and He saved our homes. (Exodus 12:25,26)
The Bible gives no hint of any pejorative attitude towards the question or the questioner, and the author of the Haggadah does not cite the Biblical response to the question in content. Indeed, the answer given in the Haggadah also appears in the Bible, but one chapter later: "Why you shall tell [vehigadeta, haggadah] to your children on that day (of the Festival of matzot), 'Because of this service did G-d do (all the these miracles) for me when I came out of Egypt.'" (Exodus 13:8) Why does the author of the Haggadah cite the question negatively and why does he change the Biblical response?

Apparently, the author of the Haggadah is struck first and foremost not by the words of the question - "What is this service to you?" - but rather by the music. Generally, the Bible precedes a question with "And when your child will ask you..." (as in Exodus 13:14); here, however, the Bible states, "And when your children shall say to you..." The wise child asks his parents; the wicked child tells, informs, his parents. And if the music is off, the author of the Haggadah then takes the liberty of interpreting the words in a negative and even supercilious fashion. This child is not trying to honestly understand the significance of the Passover ritual to the parents, so that he can internalize and incorporate it into his own life; he is rather addressing the ritual in a derogatory way, "What possible meaning can this difficult, detailed and bothersome work have for you?" (See Jerusalem Talmud, Arvei Pesahim, in which text the wicked child speaks of tircha - toil - rather than avodah - service).

Hence, the author of the Haggadah suggests that parent soften the sharp cynicism with the kind of fire that softens the hard edges of iron (Ecclesiastes 10:10), with the warmth of familial love and the passion of the parents' personal identification with Jewish history in general and with the exodus from Egypt in particular. And therefore, the author of the Haggadah finds the generic substance of the "telling to the child" more fitting: "It is because of this ritual, and the lessons it can teach one about resisting slavery, helping the underdog and striving to form a free and productive society, that the Lord took me out of Egypt."

In effect, the Haggadah is teaching the parent how to react to a negative and cynical child: with love and warmth and with all of the passion and commitment that marks the Jew who defines his personal and existential being by the special times and events that have shaped his family-nation.

But then how do we account for the end of that segment, which seems to be so negative? "Had he (this child) been (in Egypt), he would not have been redeemed." In the first instance, it is a fact of Jewish life: those who see themselves as being outside of the Jewish family, who do not at least feel part of Jewish peoplehood, will not be privileged to share in Jewish destiny.

There is yet one more point, however, which might better explain what appear to be the closing words of rebuff. A strange change of person appears in the text of the Haggadah: "...And you shall say to him, 'Because of this (service) did G-d do (all these miracles) for me...' - for me, and not for him; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed." Now, this last exchange is what the parent is to say to the wicked child; the Haggadah text ought then read: "And you shall say to him... for me, and not for you. Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed." Why does the author of the Haggadah have the parent speak to the child at the Seder in the third person, as if were not there?

I would suggest that, indeed, the wicked child is not there. He said his piece and checked out; he spoke and ran - before the main reading of the Haggadah and before the meal. He couldn't wait to join his friends at the local pub or disco. And I would further suggest that this interpretation sheds new light on our opening of the door for Elijah the Prophet.

If Elijah can make it to every single Seder all over the Jewish world - and many at the very same time - he doesn't need the door to be opened for him. I believe that we open the door not to let Elijah in, but rather to send the parents out. If Elijah's message is to restore the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents, then the parents must find the wicked child - wherever he may have gone - and bring him back into the Seder, with warm acceptance and parental, unconditional love.




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