A Fresh Look at the Wicked Child

Early on in the Seder, after the children ask the four questions, we read of four sons.
Early on in the Seder, after the children ask the four questions, we read of four sons.

By Rabbi Lior Engelman

Published April 21, 2016, issue of April 21, 2016.

The festive meal is a centerpiece of Jewish life, and on Passover the meal and what surrounds it – the Seder – becomes the defining experience of the whole holiday. Oddly, at the beginning of the evening, the section in the Hagaddah that speaks of the Wicked Child threatens to undermine the holiday’s good family feeling. After all, in our day and age we do not speak of wicked children but only of children who act wickedly. My teacher Rabbi Lior Engelman directly addresses the Wicked Child below (I’ve freely translated his words from the Hebrew). In the process we can learn something of what the Hagaddah was trying to teach us here. – Teddy Weinberger

What does the Wicked Child say: “Whatever does this service mean to you?”

Who are you oh Wicked Child? What are you afraid of? Whom are you fighting? Maybe “this service” bothers you? On this holiday of freedom perhaps you feel that freedom should be perfect. Vacation without effort. Maybe like Cain you want to feel God›s closeness without toil. You want God to accept your offering without any inner change on your part. And so you cry out: “Why the work? Why does God demand that we work in order to be close to God?” You rebel against the pain of spiritual effort. You are not prepared to limit your desires in order to ascend the Mountain of God.

If this is the case, then let us reveal to you an old secret: There is no greater freedom than the freedom of service, freedom from the outer chains that control us. And we tell you, dear child, that God looks upon your work and not upon your accomplishments; God judges your path but not its results. Even back then, in Egypt, when God chose the people of Israel to be God’s people, God provided the key: the service of Pesach. Whoever chooses the service of God, whoever announces on the doorpost of their house that this is a dwelling dedicated to service, that person will avoid destruction by meriting God’s passing over their house.

And you dear child. I am afraid that if you were there in Egypt you would not have been redeemed. But thank God you are here. In this generation that has merited a return to the Land of Israel, even those who defy God are brought in under the wings of the Shehinah. But if you were there….

Who are you, oh Wicked Child. What makes you so angry? Maybe it›s something else that has you so upset. Perhaps what troubles you is “Whatever does this service mean to you?” You wonder why God passed over the Israelite houses but wreaked destruction in every Egyptian home. Yes, perhaps what troubles you is not the importance of service but the notion of chosenness. You wonder why this one nation was chosen from all the other nations on earth. You cannot forgive this prejudice. Why did God kill them but pass us over? 

If this is your problem, then we will whisper in your ear that while service is important it isn’t everything. Before service there is chosenness. You scorn this chosenness dear child because you have gotten used to examining everything superficially. From a deeper perspective, the human being is the most precious creation because he bears within him the image of God, and Israel is most special of all nations because the Torah was given to us. But don’t worry. We will not use our chosenness to do bad. Precisely the opposite is the case: we will act as a heart to the other organs in the body and we will bring spirit to the nations of the world. 

Dear child we are happy that your sharp words are said here and now because if you were there in Egypt you would have missed out on being redeemed. But now everything is different. Sit with us dear child. We are sad that you choose to shoot arrows of evil at us. We would be happy if you would ask rather than challenge. If you have questions, ask. And even though you choose not to ask we are not worried about you. We are not worried because if our service is so repugnant to you then this is a sign that you are not apathetic. Because you spoke so brazenly we will blunt your teeth, but all this demonstrates our confidence in you. We are confident that you will not forever abandon the path of Torah and that ultimately you will come to believe and to feel. Happy Passover.

Rabbi Engelman teaches Judaica at various locations in Israel and directs the Community Beit Midrash in his home city of Kfar Saba. His novel Between the Cracks was published in 2014 to wide acclaim. 

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