I watched one of my kids stumble into a dark place recently. For a few hours he stewed in anger and blame and acted aggressively to those who came near. And then he emerged. His exodus taught me something about the Passover Exodus as well as the son the Haggadah calls rasha (wicked).
Something set him off during a family outing.
“I want to leave,” he said. “Can you drive me home?”
I was taken aback. Was he really asking me to leave the family on an hour round trip just for him? I held my reaction.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie. Mommy and the kids need me here. But if you want to talk, I’m interested.” I left to rejoin the others.
He stayed in exile. My wife and I were resolved not to give his protest undue attention. An hour later I looked up and saw he’d rejoined the playground fun. That night, as he and I set the table together, he spoke about the day’s events.
“I feel like I need help with my anger,” he volunteered.
“Really? What do you mean?”
“I got so angry today,” he admitted. “I wanted to come back to the family at some point, but I didn’t know how.” He looked sad.
“So what happened?” I asked. “How did you come back?”
He paused a moment to consider that. So caught up in the memory of his suffering, he’d forgotten his salvation.
“I don’t know.”
I wanted to answer that God helped him, but I backed off, touched and thrilled by his moment of introspection.
This story came to mind as I revisited the Haggadah’s “wicked” son.
Wicked suggests enemy. Yet our sages draw a connection between the words rasha and ra’ash — Hebrew for “noise or commotion.” The prophet likens the rasha to “the driven sea, incapable of quiet” (Isaiah 57:20).
When kids have inner calm and quiet, they navigate life’s disappointments, obstacles, and conflicts. There are bumps and bruises, but through an uncluttered mind the divine gift of wisdom finds its way to their heart. They live and learn.
On the other hand, when kids have noisy minds — filled with stress, anger, fear — the gift of divine wisdom has no room. Alone and overwhelmed in their own commotion, they solve difficulties generally by creating new ones. Their choices are destructive, but not villainous.
The rasha reveals more about his mindset with his question at the seder: “What is this service to you?” — “to you” but not to him. Because he excludes himself from the community, he denies the essence [of Judaism].
Insecure and prone to despair, the rasha isolates himself; he’s dismissive. “I feel so low; obviously, commandments don’t work for me. I’ll tear them down.” He might even want to come close; he doesn’t know how.
He doesn’t see how his own false beliefs deny the essence of Judaism and hold him back. He believes that a relationship with God is for those who feel and act in exalted ways. Since he doesn’t, he’s out.
The real essence of Judaism — and the fundamental lesson of Passover — is that God’s relationship with us is unconditional. No matter how low, how far, how unworthy we see ourselves, God doesn’t waver. He just asks that we consider His view of us and make an effort.
So how does the rasha break out? How does he peer out beyond his noisy mind long enough to consider God’s view?
It helps when others see beyond his noisy mind: that he’s more “temporarily unsettled” than villain. The fours sons at the seder are not defined personalities anyway; they’re aspects in every kid. We’re all in and out of wisdom, in and out of rasha, etc. This is not hard to see as parents: at times, we get more and less reactive, more and less insecure. Why should it be different in our kids?
We help the rasha further by standing up to him — with our compassion — and making it clear that he’s making a mistake.
“Blunt his teeth,” says the Haggadah, “and tell him, ‘It is because of this [service] that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt.’”
“You’re mistaken,” we tell the rasha. “It’s not a function of how we good we seem in our eyes that makes us worthy of leaving Egypt. God’s always interested in helping. It’s a function of this — the act of sincere service — that enables us to go.”
I can’t claim credit for my son’s introspection. Ultimately, each one of us — our kids included — is having his own private relationship with God. But there were some things that felt right.
I didn’t overlook his hostility. But I was fortunate to see that it said more about his state of mind than his inner self. I didn’t battle him, nor did I indulge him. I backed off. Faced with the effects of his own chosen path, he settled down. The wise kid showed up.
May we merit to understand the rasha in ourselves and our children and taste what it means to receive the gift of leaving our own Egypt.
Rabbi Henry Harris has served as consultant and coach to CEOs and Wall Street Managing Directors as well as teens, moms and dads. He is Director of the Jewish Center for Wellbeing. For info about an upcoming “Things Your Kids Wish You Knew” webinar, visit www.jewishcenterforwellbeing.com.