Parshat Bo: No future without a past
By SHLOMO RISKIN
‘When your children will say to you, “What is this service to you?” You shall say, “It is the Passover service to God”’
Why does the author of the Haggada call the questioner in this sequence “the
wicked child”? One reason, which the Haggada itself emphasizes, lies in the
questioner’s exclusion of himself from the family ritual when he asks, “What is
this service to you?” The Haggada explains: “Saying ‘you,’ he excludes himself,
and by doing so he denies a basic principle of our faith.” For a Jew, it is
considered “wicked” to exclude oneself from the Jewish ritual-familial
Also, in this instance, the child doesn’t ask his parents
anything; he tells them: “...when your children shall say to you” (Exodus
12:26). An honest question reveals a willingness to learn, but the wicked child
is not interested in answers – only in making statements.
How might we
respond to such a child? The Bible itself gives one response: “It is the
Passover service to God. He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt
[when he slew the Egyptian firstborn] and He saved our homes” (Exodus 12:26,
27); the author of the Haggada gives another: “You shall cause his teeth to be
on edge, and say to him, ‘It is because of that which God did for me when I went
out of Egypt’” (Ex.
13:8). Why the difference, and what is the specific
message of each? The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817- 1893)
teaches that the wicked child’s statement reflects his belief that so many years
after the original events there is no reason to retain such an old-fashioned and
outmoded service. The biblical answer is that it is a Passover sacrifice to God,
who saved our homes, and our families.
There are two central pillars in
Judaism: family ties and Divine laws and directions. Family has been an
important Jewish value from the beginning of our history, when Abraham is told
that he is distinguished and loved by God “so that he command his children and
his family after him that they do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19).
And when Pharaoh’s servants agree to allow Moses to leave Egypt – but only with
the males – Moses and Aaron respond, “We shall go with our young and with our
old, with our sons and with our daughters” (Ex. 10:9). It’s a family
Hence, the Bible tells this wicked child that the Passover
sacrifice is a reminder of a Divine miracle that preserved the Jewish family.
The Seder is precisely the kind of family ritual that is crucial for familial
The author of the Haggada cites a different verse: “When the
Lord brings you to the land which He swore to your fathers to give to you... You
shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of this [ritual] that
God did [miracles] for me when I went out of Egypt’” (Ex. 13:5, 8).
key words here are “did for me.” Passover teaches the two most important
messages of Judaism: the inalienable right of every individual to be free and
the injunction that we love the stranger because we were (unloved) strangers in
Egypt. The continuity of the generations and the familial celebrations of
crucial historical events demand that each Jew have the ability to transform
past history into one’s own existential and personal memory. The initial
biblical answer emphasizes the importance of familial experiences for familial
continuity; the author of the Haggada adds that without incorporating past into
present there can be neither meaningful present nor anticipated future.
am my past.
Despite the fact that the wicked child has denied his roots,
we dare not tear him out of the family. He may think that he wants to remove
himself from historical continuity, but it’s the task of his family to remind
him that this celebration is an indelible part of his existential identity, that
he is celebrating his own personal liberation.
The Haggada instructs us
to set the teeth of the wicked child on edge. The phrase in Hebrew is “hakheh et
shinav.” It doesn’t say hakeh, which means to strike, to slap him in the teeth,
but rather “hakheh,” from the language of the prophet Ezekiel, “The fathers eat
the sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The prophet is
expressing the fundamental unfairness in the fact that the parents have sinned
but their children are the ones who must suffer the pain of exile. Indeed,
children do suffer for the sins of their parents – always. Anyone who comes from
a difficult or dysfunctional home will bear the burden.
But just as the
child has responsibility to his past, the parent has responsibility to the
future. Are we certain that the wicked child’s teeth are not set on edge because
of the sour grapes that we, the parents, have eaten because we have not properly
demonstrated the requisite love and passion for the beauty and the glory of our
traditions? Have we been there to hear his questions when he was still ready to
ask them and to listen to answers? Have we been the appropriate models for him
to desire continuity within our family? The author of the Haggada subtly but
forthrightly reminds both parents and children of their obligations to each
other, to past and to future.
The writer is the founder
and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi