Am I wicked? Are you?
At our seder my wife and I were reading from “The Pesach Haggadah with a Commentary Culled from the Classic Ba’alei Mussar” (by R’ Shalom Meir Wallach), and came across this thought from the Alter of Novarodok:
“The wicked son is not the heretic who denies the existence of Hashem and the validity of His Torah. He, seemingly, is the kind who believes in God and performs the mitzvos. He just misses here, and compromises there. He does not see the need for the scrupulous adherence to every minute detail, nor does he think he is able to change his temperament. After all, he cannot understand that there is any need to do so. He asks, ‘Why do you make a (difficult) labor of this?’ To his mind, Judaism is not a religion of the extreme.
He is told: ‘Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.’ The entire ‘going out of Egypt’ was an act of sacrifice, an act of the extreme. It involved drastic about-faces and changes from the normal patterns of behavior. ‘We shall do’ preceded ‘We shall hear’. It was a period in which ‘You (Israel) followed after Me (Hashem) in the desert in a land unsown’ (Yirmiyahu (2:2); a period in which the questions ‘What shall we eat? How shall we live?’ were left unasked. Whoever feared the extreme, whoever refused to alter his pattern of life-as-usual remained behind in Egypt. And in our day and age, too, whoever refuses to master his traits is mastered by them and chained within them for all time.”
I don’t believe for a moment that of all the people who left Egypt, no one questioned where the food would come from. I think Torah is clear that the Israelites were often wondering about food and water, and they were not shy about kvetching when it wasn’t to their liking.
That said, I DO agree with the Alter of Novardok that there are times in life when we need to make those drastic changes. Getting myself into recovery was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (a decision I continue reinforcing each day). Marrying my wife Sherri was another of my best decisions. I am not, however, one who feels the need for “scrupulous adherence to every minute detail” and I do generally find the halachic system as it’s been developed over the years to be “a difficult labor” and too often “a religion of the extreme.” I love and adore my wife, who was smiling when she identified my seeming allegiance with the Alter’s description of the wicked son. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud to be identified with the wicked child of the Seder!
And yet…sometimes the person we label as wicked is the one who’s asking the most important questions, the ones we too often ignore because they bring up issues we’d rather not address. Sometimes they are the ones in pain, their lives overwhelmed with grief, loss, suffering, and sorrow. Hitting them in the teeth and/or telling them that they wouldn’t have been taken out of slavery are positively awful strategies that seem to speak more to the insecurity of the rabbis than to the real questions being asked.
I’ve met and worked with many people impacted by addiction who are struggling with the questions of their lives. Why does this keep happening to me? Why can’t I beat this addiction? Why is life so hard? Where is God in this mess of my life? Will I ever make it? Do I deserve my suffering? I remember an anecdote I heard years ago: “Drinking is not the answer, but when you drink, you forget the question.” This is one of the great challenges of recovery, that the addiction, even with its awful consequences, is actually a solution to a problem as well. We drink/eat/drug/smoke/have sex/gamble, etc. to forget the questions we can’t answer. We don’t want to be reminded of the existential angst we carry. We’d rather feel nothing than have to continue sitting with our pain. In order to maintain lasting recovery, we need both to stop engaging in the harmful behavior and to find better ways of coping with the questions of our lives.
Too often when we do express these questions we are ignored by those we turn to for support. It’s hard to sit with so much pain, and families of addicts are often ill-equipped to do so (to be fair, most people absent specialized training, have a hard time sitting with pain and suffering). When I imagine the “wicked son” asking his parents “what does this all mean to you?” I don’t hear that as a threat to their way of life. I hear a genuine desire to know what this big mystery of the seder is all about. Why is it important to you that we observe these rituals? How does all of this benefit you? And the unasked question many of us are often too shy to express: could it possibly help me as well? It seems like the rabbis hear the question of the wicked son and assume a negative, dismissive tone. I wish the rabbis had been more willing to listen for the questions underlying the question. Every time a question is asked, we have an opportunity to connect with someone on a deep level. Responding to a question with an act of violence will not continue the conversation or lead to any healing.
I want to live in a world where instead of “othering” people for having the chutzpah to question how life works, we ask them to tell us how they came to the question, and how they hope life could be. Of course there are times when people’s questions are inappropriate and there are times when punishment is needed. I think those times should be few and far between. When we find ourselves getting riled up by a question, perhaps we should ask ourselves what is getting in the way of our responding with compassion? Perhaps we shouldn’t respond until we are ready to do so with kindness and love.
To all of us who’ve been ridiculed for asking questions, don’t ever stop. Some will call us wicked. That is their loss. We may, however, want to focus on different questions than the ones we’ve been stuck on. Where am I still enslaved? How can I be more free? Where is God in my life? Do I believe that with God’s help and my efforts my life can change for the better? Can I see ways in which my life has already improved? What tools do I have which can help me move forward? Where else can I find wisdom and support? It might just be that asking better questions can begin leading us out of slavery.
Let us scrupulously adhere to our ability to ask the right questions and build a better life for us, and for all our fellow travelers on earth. May we be released from our enslavements, and may we be free to live, love, learn, and embrace the great questions and mysteries of life, today and every day.
Chag Sameach. Happy Passover.