Passover and the Wicked Son

The most famous rasha of all is the second son in the Passover Haggadah.

April 4, 2015 22:18

A Passover Seder for new immigrants takes place in Mevaseret Zion in 2011.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It’s not nice to be called a “wicked son,” a rasha – whether we’re talking about an outsider such as Pharaoh, Bil’am, Haman, Titus or one of the more modern varieties, or about a Jew. The most famous rasha of all is the second son in the Passover Haggadah.

He takes many forms, proving that there are people perceived as resha’im in every generation – look at the “rasha” pictures in illustrated Haggadot and you see that the villains range through Roman soldiers; Russian Cossacks, often with dogs; a materialist with a monocle; a Maskil (a proponent of the often irreligious Enlightenment) or even a Reform rabbi (as in Malbim’s Haggadah); an old apikoros; or a teenage dropout (as in more recent Haggadot).

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All share the characteristic that it wasn’t outside causes that made them “wicked” but their own misguided choice. The rasha alienates himself (as the Mishnah Avot 2:13 says, he makes himself wicked: rasha bif ’nei atzmekha) and the community rejects him.

In the Haggadah listing of sons, the rasha is an “odd man out.” The Wise Son is a role model; the third (“simple”) son can’t help himself; the fourth son (“he who knows not how to ask”) will eventually mature. But the rasha will always be with us (Psalm 1 says that the tzaddik and rasha will always be contrasts and warns against his influence: “Happy is the person who walks not in the counsel of the wicked”).

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What are we meant to do with the rasha? The Haggadah says, “blunt his teeth” and insists that if he had been alive in the age of slavery, “he would not have been redeemed.” Put simply, if he had lived in ancient Egypt, he would have been left there.

What is his wickedness? Religious – he denies the fundaments of Jewish commitment (“he rejects an ikkar”).

Intellectual – he uses his sharp mind against tradition; he does not ask but tells.

Social – he mocks family tradition.

Psychological – he wavers in the wind, as Psalm 1 puts it.

Ethical – he undermines the community (Rambam says that a sense of community is an ikkar).

Behavioral – he is a rebel and non-conformist (a “ben sorer umoreh” – a “stubborn and rebellious son,” as in Deuteronomy 21:18).

Theological – he omits God (“Himself” – using “Atzmo” as in the Titus story in Gittin 56b).

Rasha is thus a generic term, and the Haggadah knows that we don’t like him. No wonder the Mishnaic story of R. Akavya ben Mahalel (Eduyot 5:6) tells us, ”I’d hate to be called a rasha.”

His punishment is hakheh et shinav, “blunt his teeth.” Not that this means to use violence. Malbim’s explanation of the term is that it is a metaphor for “rebut his argument.” If he sticks to his guns and can’t be persuaded, intellectual honesty would require that he stay away from the Seder; blunting his teeth would make him simply unable to eat the paschal lamb.

Yet not for ever. True, in the past he would have been left behind, but in real time he can’t stay away.

Something in him still wants to be there. As the old phrase has it, he can’t avoid the pintele yid, the Jewish spark. Eventually he will be won over. (Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rimanov is sure that one day the rasha will reinstate himself, as is actually foretold in the Bible in Mal. 3:24).

But now comes the personal part of this article. I have to confess that – despite everything – I like the rasha. He has spirit and a mind of his own. Not for him the conventional piety of the good boy who learns his lessons, goes to daven and does all the right things. No: the wicked son needs to be himself.

He accepts nothing on trust, nor does he automatically obey instructions.

Mah ha-avodah ha-zot lakhem” – what does this service mean to you? he demands (Exodus 12:26- 27), implying, “You – not us.” I know that according to the commentators, he gets punished for saying “to you.” But the Wise Son also says “to you” (Deuteronomy 6:20-21), and no-one thinks of rebuking him! Why give the Wicked Son such a rough ride? If there is something wrong in him it must be found elsewhere. Compare his words with those of the Wise Son and you have the answer. Says the rasha: “What is this service to you?” Says the Wise Son, “What are the laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” The word “you” that each one uses can be explained in that it was his parents’ generation who received the command: he himself might not even have been born. But the really important distinction between the sons is that the Wise Son mentions God while the Wicked Son leaves Him out. To the Wise Son, all is from God.

The rasha doesn’t bring God into the reckoning.

How did Passover come to be, according to his reasoning? Presumably it just happened, and its source is sociology or anthropology, not religion.

That’s the “denial of a fundamental principle” of which the wicked son is guilty. Imagining the world can manage without God, that’s his offense. He is a secularist for whom God is irrelevant, though as our age has shown, this view is a god that has failed.

Now the Seder makes sense: “Hak’heh et shin’av,” it says, and some read the passage, “Hak’heh et shinnuyo,” rebut his distortion. Do I still like the rasha? Certainly...but I would be the first to try and persuade him that he is wrong.

The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.

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