One of the most delightful parts of the Seder is the portion concerning the wise child, the wicked child, the simple or na ve child and the child who doesn't know what to ask. At our extended family Seder - up to 50 participants - I assign "parts," but allow for volunteers when it comes to the four children. To my perennial surprise, the wicked child gets the most raised hands.
Let's explore the question which the Haggada ascribes to this child.
"What does the wicked child say? 'What is this service to you?' - to you, and not to him. 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, and say to him: 'Because of this [service] did God 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 although the exact words of this question are derived from the Bible - "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 Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He brought plague [the death of the firstborn] upon Egypt, and He saved our homes" (Exodus 12:25, 26) - the Bible gives no hint of any pejorative attitude toward the questioner, and the author of the Haggada doesn't cite the biblical response. Indeed, the answer given also appears in the Bible, but only one chapter later: "You shall tell [vehigadeta, haggada] your children on that day [of the festival of matzot], 'Because of this service did God do [all these miracles] for me when I came out of Egypt'" (Ex 13:8).
Why does the Haggada cite the question negatively, and why does it change the biblical response?
Apparently, the author is struck not by the words of the question - "What is this service to you?" - but 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 his parents. And if the music is off, the author of the Haggada takes the liberty of interpreting the words in a negative fashion.
This child is not trying to honestly understand the Pessah ritual so that he can 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 Pessahim, in which text the child speaks of tirha - toil - rather than avoda - service).
Hence the author of the Haggada suggests that parents soften the cynicism with the kind of fire used to soften the edges of iron (Ecclesiastes 10:10) - the warmth of familial love and the passion of the parents' personal identification with Jewish history. Therefore the author of the Haggada finds "telling" 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 Haggada is teaching parents how to react to a cynical child: with love and warmth and all the passion and commitment which marks the Jew who defines his personal and existential being by the special times and events which have shaped his nation.
But then how do we account for the end, which seems to be so negative: "Had he [this child] been [in Egypt], he would not have been redeemed"?
It is a fact of Jewish life that those who see themselves as being outside the Jewish family and people will not be privileged to share in Jewish destiny.
And there is one more point. A strange change of person appears in the Haggada: "...And you shall say to him, 'Because of this [service] did God do [all these miracles] for me...' - for me, and not for him; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed." Now if this last exchange is what the parent is to tell the wicked child, the Haggada ought to 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 Haggada have the parent speak to the child in the third person, as if he were not there?
I would suggest that indeed the wicked child is not there. He said his piece and ran - before the main reading of the Haggada and before the meal. At this point, the parent does become a bit negative.
But the author of the Haggada doesn't leave off with the negative. Remember that after the meal, we open the door for Elijah. I believe that we open the door not to let Elijah in, but to let the parents out. If Elijah is to restore the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents, then the parents - after patiently awaiting the child's return - must go out to look for him, wherever he may have gone, and bring him back with warm acceptance and unconditional love.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.