By Shlomo Riskin
“When your children will say to you, ‘What is this service to you?’ You shall say, ‘It is the Passover service to God.’”
Why does the author of the Haggadah call the questioner in this sequence “the wicked child”? The Haggadah explains: “Saying [‘What I this service to] ‘you,’ he excludes himself, and by doing so he denies a basic principle of our faith.” For a Jew, it is considered “wicked” to exclude oneself from the Jewish ritual-familial experiences.
Also, the wicked child doesn’t ask his parents anything; instead, he tells them: “…when your children shall say to you” (Ex. 12:26). An honest question reveals a willingness to learn, but the wicked child is not interested in answers – only in making statements.
How might we respond to such a child? The Bible itself gives one response: “It is the Passover service to God. He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt [when he slew the Egyptian firstborn] and He saved our homes” (Ex. 12:27); the author of the Haggadah gives another: “You shall cause his teeth to be on edge, and say to him, ‘It is because of that which God did for me when I went out of Egypt’” (Ex. 13:8).
Why the difference? The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817-1893) teaches that the wicked child’s statement reflects his belief that so many years after the original events there is no reason to retain such an old-fashioned and outmoded service. The biblical answer is that it is a Passover sacrifice to God, who saved our homes and our families.
There are two central pillars in Judaism: family ties and Divine directions. Family has been an important Jewish value from the beginning of our history, when Abraham is told that he is distinguished and loved by God “so that he command his children and his family after him that they do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). And when Pharaoh’s servants agree to allow Moses to leave Egypt – but only with the males – Moses and Aaron respond, “We shall go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters” (Ex. 10:9). It’s a family affair.
Hence, the Bible tells this wicked child that the Passover sacrifice is a reminder of a Divine miracle that preserved the Jewish family. The Seder is precisely the kind of family ritual that is crucial for familial continuity.
The author of the Haggadah cites a different verse: “When the Lord brings you to the land which He swore to your fathers to give to you… You shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of this [ritual] that God did [miracles] for me when I went out of Egypt’” (Ex. 13:5-8).
The key words here are “did for me.” Passover teaches the two most important messages of Judaism: the inalienable right of every individual to be free and the injunction that we love the stranger because we were (unloved) strangers in Egypt. The continuity of the generations and the familial celebrations of crucial historical events demand that each Jew have the ability to transform past history into one’s own existential and personal memory. The initial biblical answer emphasizes the importance of familial experiences for familial continuity; the author of the Haggadah adds that without incorporating past into present there can be neither meaningful present nor anticipated future.
I am my past. Despite the fact that the wicked child has denied his roots, we dare not tear him out of the family. He may think that he wants to remove himself from historical continuity, but it’s the task of his family to remind him that this celebration is an indelible part of his existential identity, that he is celebrating his own personal liberation.
The Haggadah instructs us to set the teeth of the wicked child on edge. The phrase in Hebrew is “hakheh et shinav.” It doesn’t say “hakeh,” which means to strike him in the teeth, but rather “hakheh,” from the language of the prophet Ezekiel, “The fathers eat the sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezek. 18:2). The prophet is expressing the fundamental unfairness in the fact that the parents have sinned but their children are the ones who must suffer the pain of exile.
But just as the child has responsibility to his past, the parent has responsibility to the future. Are we certain that the wicked child’s teeth are not set on edge because of the sour grapes that we, the parents, have eaten because we have not properly demonstrated the requisite love and passion for the beauty and the glory of our traditions? Have we been there to hear his questions when he was still ready to ask them and to listen to answers? Have we been the appropriate models for him to desire continuity within our family? The author of the Haggadah subtly but forthrightly reminds both parents and children of their obligations to each other, to past and to future.