Friday, April 13, 2012

What does the wicked son really say?

According to the traditional Passover text, the Hagada (the telling), there are four sons who ask questions about the Passover seder (order, the traditional ritual meal at which the Hagada is read), as follows:

The Torah refers to four sons: One wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask a question. What does the wise son say? "What are the testimonials, statutes and laws Hashem [the name] our God commanded you?" You should tell him about the laws of Pesach, that one may eat no dessert after eating the Pesach offering.
What does the wicked son say? "What does this drudgery mean to you?" To you and not to him. Since he excludes himself from the community, he has denied a basic principle of Judaism. You should blunt his teeth by saying to him: "It is for the sake of this that Hashem (God) did for me when I left Egypt. For me and not for him. If he was there he would not have been redeemed."
What does the simple son say? "What's this?" You should say to him "With a strong hand Hashem took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude."
And the one who does not know how to ask, you start for him, as the Torah says: "And you should tell your son on that day, saying 'It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt.'"

There are many creative commentaries on this within the tradition. The sons are, of course, meant to refer to four different temperaments or attitudes.  The wicked son is seen as a threat. He has a really bad attitude, his skepticism is dangerous. He needs to be brought to heel or banished. Here is an example.

"The wicked son's 'question' is merely rhetorical - it deserves no response at all. Yet, the one who does not know how to ask is sitting at the table listening to the wicked son's remarks. He's in danger of being influenced. Therefore, our response to the wicked son is to say to the one who doesn't even know how to ask: "Don't be influenced by his smug cynicism. Had he been in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed. He is cutting himself off from the eternity of the Jewish people."(

But actually, I have it on good authority, that the wicked son was not so wicked at all and was really trying to open up a searching dialogue based on some very deep-seated reservations and doubts which troubled him. What appears above as his question is actually just a very short extract of the end of his true question (or series of related questions). This text, hitherto suppressed, has been discovered and I can present it to you in its entirety. His so-called question has to be understood in the context of the whole text. [Of course I cannot reveal my source].


So, the Jews are enslaved in Egypt. They face an evil Pharoh. Moses shakes him up, but God “hardens  his heart“ so that time and again he refuses to let the Israelites go in spite of the increasing severity of the plagues. Why does God harden Pharoh’s heart? Does this mean it is not Pharoh’s fault? After all, he has no choice – God controls his heart. So why is he the bad one? And what about the collateral damage? How are the poor Egyptian first born sons to blame? Why are they punished, they are just kids? Come to think of it, since it is God who is pulling all the strings, why did God allow the Israelites to become slaves in the first place?

Of course, this brings up the whole question of free-will and how to reconcile it with God’s all-embracing power and goodness. You will say to me that these are unanswerable questions not relevant when talking about God. God is outside of human time and morality and has his own grand plan that we mere mortals cannot possibly understand. Ok, but why then are we encouraged to ask questions, especially during the seder. Does God want us to be curious, and to have our curiosity satisfied or not? Seems to me you can’t have it both ways.

If one believes in a good and merciful God, it makes more sense to me to conclude that he cannot be all-powerful (HT: Rabbi Harold Kushner). Some things are beyond his control and he empathizes with those who suffer. In which case why go through the all those parts in the Hagada that seem to deny this. After all, what does this drudgery mean to you?

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