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.”
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.
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
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).
strange word hak’hey implies breaking down negative and sharp cynicism with warm
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
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
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
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
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah
Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.