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Response and responsibility

We must try to understand the mind-set of our children and the specific “melody” which enters their hearts, minds and souls.

Red Sea A Happy Passover Haggadah
Photo by: Monicka Clio Rafaeli
My favorite part of the Seder is the “Four children,” both their questions and the answers that they are given. This passage reminds us that each of our children is unique, that their questions must be encouraged and taken seriously and our answers must be tailored to the personality of the questioner. We dare not meet the next generation with pat answers. We must try to understand the mind-set of our children and the specific “melody” which enters their hearts, minds and souls.

With this in mind, let us study the paragraph relating to the wicked child. “The wicked child, what does he say? ‘What is this service to you?’” Objectively, this is probably the best question of the four – as Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, famed head of the Volozhin Yeshiva, says in his commentary on the Haggada. Is it not legitimate for our children to ask us what meaning ritual has for us and why we are so anxious to observe it? In the biblical text (Exodus 12), there is no particular appellation given to this questioner, so why does the author of the Haggada brand this questioner wicked? Perhaps you will respond, as does the continuation of the very paragraph we are discussing: “By saying, ‘What is this service to you’ he implies, ‘to you, but not to him’ and by excluding himself from the people of Israel, he is denying a basic principle of our faith.”

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The “wise child” of the Haggada, however, uses identical words: “What are the testimonies, statutes and laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” The so-called “wise son” is also excluding himself, but he is not criticized by the author of the Haggada.

Why not? In the Bible, each of the questions is prefaced with the words, “when your child will ask you” – with the exception of the words ascribed to the wicked child.

In that case, the verse reads, “When your children shall say to you ‘what is this service to you?’” (Ex. 12:26). In other words, the wise child asks, whereas the wicked child proclaims.

How then does the author of the Haggada suggest that we respond to this child? “Hak’hey his sharp teeth.” The Hebrew word hak’hey means to soften the sharp tip of a sword or any iron implement with heat emanating from fire (see Ecclesiastes 10:10).

This strange word hak’hey implies breaking down negative and sharp cynicism with warm parental love.

The child feels disconnected from the Passover family ritual and he is attempting to distance himself from it; therefore his parents must use their bonds of love to bring him back into his Jewish family.

There is an alternative way of understanding this difficult phrase. A number of our prophets speak of the Jewish complaint within exile, “The fathers ate sour, unripe grapes, but the teeth of the children are set on edge” (tik’hena, Jeremiah 31:28). This metaphor refers to the fact that when people eat something sour, their teeth feel “edgy”; in other words, the children are suffering for the sins of their parents.

Perhaps the author of the Haggada is saying to the parents: “You are responsible for the sharpness of your son’s query, for his cynical approach. You have not expressed enough excitement and commitment to your ritual observance. Therefore, you must take responsibility, and find the key that will open your child’s heart, soul and mind.”

Let us now look at the concluding words of this paragraph, “And you shall say to him, ‘Because of this [our commitment to retell the Exodus, the importance of freedom and the significance of our identifying with the enslaved, the underdogs and all “others”] God performed these miracles for me in my going out from Egypt’ – to me, and not to him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

There is a very strange transfer of person in this last phrase. “And you shall say to him” means that you, the parent, are speaking to him in the second person.

If that’s the case, we would expect the final phrase to read, “for me, and not for you” rather than “for me and not for him.” Apparently, this child has walked out of the Seder without waiting to listen to the parental response.

Looking at the number of pages left to read before the meal, he decided to meet his friends for pizza. And so the paragraph concludes “Had he been there [in Egypt, and also walked away from the Hebrews], he would not have been redeemed.”

Following Grace after Meals, we open the door for Elijah, ostensibly inviting him in to our Seder. I would suggest that we also open the door to let ourselves out so that we may join Elijah in searching for the son who has walked out on the Seder. Elijah is the herald of the Messiah who will bring the hearts of the children back to the parents and the hearts of the parents towards their children. We are asking him to join with us in returning our errant child to the inclusionary warmth and love of the Passover Seder.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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