Between wise and wicked: Ritual and narrative at the seder and beyond

Those of us who attended yeshiva elementary school in the 1970s may remember taking home, in the days before Passover, a one-page guide to the seder printed in purple-blue ink (handouts were cranked out by the rotating drum of a “Ditto” machine in a distinctively colored and strong-smelling dye). The primer was memorably titled “Do It Right on Pesach Night.”

A sign of the burgeoning trend toward stricter, text-based halakhic standards, “Do It Right” was a chart listing the minimum required quantities of matzah, bitter herbs, wine, and other seder foods. Some of the measurements were based on a maximalist — many would say erroneous — interpretation of the olive and egg-based measures mandated by the Talmud.

Passover is the only holiday on which the Bible requires eating symbolic foods accompanied by an explanation of their symbolism. The Torah demands context and meaning, in the form of a spoken narrative, at the ritual meal. Our Haggadah provides a framework for that narrative.

Without the narrative, can you fulfill the requirement to eat matzah on the first night of Passover? Technically, the answer is yes. The Talmud says that if someone were coerced into eating matzah, they would fulfil the mitzvah.

But this is a problematic idea. Rabbi Gamliel, cited in both the Mishnah and the Haggadah, takes the seemingly contradictory stance that “whoever has not discussed these three things on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: The paschal sacrifice, matzah, and bitter herbs.” Presumably, this means that a seder lacking narrative content is worthless.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik reconciled these positions by distinguishing between two separate religious obligations fulfilled in the act of eating matzah (see, for example, Festival of Freedom, an anthology of his lectures and essays on Passover). By merely ingesting it, Rabbi Soloveitchik explained, you have indeed fulfilled the most basic obligation of eating matzah on Passover. However, the Torah also requires us to reenact the exodus, intellectually and emotionally, by performing rituals of slavery and redemption and by following the Haggadah’s narrative. Without the narrative of freedom, demonstrated and spoken at the meal, the ritual may be satisfied but the experiential obligation remains unfulfilled.

These two aspects of matzah and of religious observance in general – outward performance and inner experience — are represented, I believe, by the Haggadah’s “wise” and “wicked” sons.

The “Four Sons” is a typology. The sons are types that represent intellectual-moral qualities rather than real individuals. Each of us is a composite — in proportions that may vary over time and circumstances — of the wise, wicked, simple, and silent children.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (“Netziv”), the brilliant nineteenth-century talmudist, describes the wicked son as someone who dismisses unexplained religious ritual out of hand. For this son (or daughter), meaning is the sole measure of the religious act. He cannot bring himself to join his family on Passover before he rationalizes every part of the seder. Rather than an outright rejection of the seder’s rituals, his question — “What is this service to you?” — is a challenge to his parents and teachers to provide substance to the outer trappings of an annual holiday meal. What he really asks is this: “What does this service mean to you? What should it mean to me? Why, year after year, do you (read, should I) go through these motions? And, if you cannot answer these questions to my liking, I’m leaving.”

We might admire the wicked son’s idealism. He cannot accept a religion that revolves around measurements, technicalities, mechanical performance, and social conformism.  He reacts with contempt to what he views as a tedious, vapid, and meaningless ritual.

But the philosophical purism of the wicked son is self-centered and unsustainable.  This son is committed only to his personal intellectual gratification.  Unable to see the narrative underlying the ritual, he abandons both.  As he walks out on the seder, he fails his community and, he may ultimately discover, himself.

The wise son, in stark contrast, is focused exclusively on the rules — he cannot get enough of them. His only interest, as expressed in his question, is to learn “the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments” (Deuteronomy 6:20) required at the seder.

This son is preoccupied with the Seder rituals — the technology of the seder: Which brand of matzah was prepared under the most radical strictures? How many square inches or ounces will satisfy the outsized “olive” requirement and within how many seconds must that quantity be eaten? While his punctiliousness may derive from genuine religious devotion, he has neglected the freedom narrative, an equally essential obligation of the seder. He may be wise, but he is far from perfect.

The wise son’s behavior at the seder is a function of his religious outlook. Note that his question, in its original context, follows a passage regarding mitzvot generally: “Be sure to keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which he has commanded you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord . . .” (Deut. 6:17-18).

While his curiosity is stimulated by first verse — his question addresses testimonies, statutes, and other formal religious acts — the wise son does not seem at all interested in how to perform the “right and good,” a sweeping and subjective ethical standard. Nahmanides writes that the “right and good” is a catchall for proper interpersonal behaviors, since the Torah could not have possibly listed them all. The “right and good” cannot be measured, weighed, timed, or fit neatly into a chart, but it is the silent narrative behind a truly pious life.

When our daughters and sons ask us to explain the details of Jewish practice — “What is this service to you?” — we must not neglect to teach them the “right and good,” the unwritten ethical mandate of Judaism. This, for our children and for us, may be the true measure of “doing it right,” on Pesach night and year round.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Yossi Huttler, zikhrono livrakha, whose poetry and prose added beauty and depth to every Jewish holiday.

About the Author
David Zinberg lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and three sons and works in financial services.
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