By Shlomo Riskin
“And He shall restore the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Mal. 3:24)
This coming Sabbath is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath. In a usual calendar year, when there are at least several days between the Sabbath and Passover, we read on Shabbat Hagadol the prophetic portion from Malachi, who speaks of the “great and awesome day” which will precede the redemption. It is actually Elijah the prophet who will herald this day, and Elijah’s major task will be “to restore the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents.”
Apparently, our prophet understood that the major issue facing each of us is discord within the family and, if the period of redemption will be one of harmony and love, such rapprochement must begin with the parent-child relationship. There is one strange note within this verse: The fifth commandment ordains that children honor their parents, yet Malachi begins his familial charge to the parents who must first turn their hearts to the children. What does this mean?
Many years ago, I suggested that imbedded in the prophetic verse was the prophet’s vision of our very unique generation, when the ba’al teshuvah (penitent) movement will be so successful that many parents will be learning from their children around the seder table. Although it is undoubtedly true, as Maimonides teaches us, that there will be no redemption without penitential return (teshuva), life experiences have taught me that there is still another interpretation to Malachi’s words.
Of all of the challenges adults face in life none is greater than that of being a parent and grandparent. Tragically, one can become a parent without having taken a single course and/or proving one’s parental abilities.
The seder, which is an expression of the commandment, “And you shall tell (haggadah) to your children,” expresses the challenge of parenting at its very opening. Each of the participants around the table takes karpas, usually translated as a green vegetable portending the spring season. However, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger suggests in his interpretation of the Haggadah that the word karpas is derived from the special striped and colored garment which father Jacob gave to his favorite son Joseph (Gen. 37:3), called in Hebrew passim, and which Rashi links to the special karpas embroidery decorating King Achashverosh’s palace (Rashi ad loc). We generally dip our vegetable in salt water; however, there is an alternative custom to dip the karpas in charoset, a mixture of nuts and wine that the Jerusalem Talmud suggests is reminiscent of blood. When we remember that the brothers of Joseph dipped his karpas cloak into the blood of the slaughtered ram (Gen. 37:31), it is clear that we are opening the seder remembering the relationship between father Jacob and Joseph, about which the rabbis of the Talmud criticized the parent who favors one child among the others and thereby causes familial jealousy (B.T. Shabbat 10b). From this perspective, the seder is at one and the same time instructing the parent of his major task to impart Jewish traditions to his children, but warning the parent of the challenges and even difficulties which go along with parenthood.
How can we avoid the pitfall? First, it is crucial to be loving and accepting of all of our children, even of those who may have strayed far from the path. That is why there are four children type-casted around the seder table, one of them being the wicked child. He too must be given a place that enables him to feel the familial embrace. Even more noteworthy is how the Haggadah defines the wicked child: he is neither a Sabbath desecrator nor a partaker of non-kosher food, but is rather one who excludes himself from the community of Israel. For Judaism, it is critical that the Jew feels him/herself to be a member of the entire Jewish family. It is incumbent upon every Jewish parent to inclusively accept all the children. The wicked child may even ask provocative and insolent questions of the parent, and is then told by the author of the Haggadah: “hakheh his teeth,” a difficult verb usually translated as “blunt his teeth” or give him a slap across the mouth. Nothing could be further from the true interpretation. The Hebrew verb hakheh means to remove the sharpness of an iron implement by the warmth of fire (Eccl. 10:10). The wise parent will take away the sting from the words of a wicked child through familial love and warmth.
Each of us has a little bit of each of the four children within our own personality; hardly anyone is consistent—either in being good or being wicked—all the time. The message of the Haggadah: be loving and not judgmental, wise and not punitive.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.