Making Space for the Rasha

Every year at our seder, when we reach the section of the four sons (or, as we say in my family, the four children), my aunt objects vociferously to the characterization of the second child as wicked. The word rasha can be translated any number of ways—wicked, evil, criminal—but it is a word that is laden with judgment, and with the sense that the child is irredeemable. What kind of parent, my aunt asks, would reject their child so completely to assert that he would have been left behind in Egypt?

Truly, the language of the Haggadah is troubling. The idea that the goal of the response is “hak’eh et shinav,” set his teeth on edge, suggests a degree of emotional, if not physical, violence. Because he is judging in this rejection, he is rejected.

In many ways, however, I sometimes see the wicked child as the most compelling of the four. The wise child seems stuck in technical halakhic minutia, which sometimes makes me wonder if he is missing the larger point. (And who among us, in the course of our Pesach preparations, has not gotten so consumed by the hint for invisible chametz that we forget the larger narrative of redemption?) The simple child has a sweetness to him, but he does not seem like the most scintillating conversationalist. And the child who does not know how to ask is either so young or so far removed from the seder that it is difficult even begin to think about how he might be engaged in a deep and meaningful way.

So that leaves the wicked child as the one I would most like to have at my seder. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the wicked child is that he is there, at the table, asking questions about Yetziat Mitzrayim, even if he does so with a chip on his shoulder. If he is so disaffected, so intent on rejecting his heritage, then why does he show up? Could it be that on some level, below his layers of hostility and anger, he is hoping to find something that will spark or inspire him?

It is this possibility that causes me to reframe my aunt’s condemnation. While the wicked child is welcome at my seder, his parents are not. The simple act of asking a question, albeit one laden with sarcasm and judgment, hints at a willingness to engage. The fact that his parents respond with anger, by telling him he has no place in the core Jewish narrative, is the real wickedness.

Surely, we can understand their frustration. At a moment of community and miracles, they feel their heritage being rejected by the very person to whom they had hoped to transmit it. However, their anger creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. By telling their child that he does not merit redemption, they ensure that he will not seek it. By calling him wicked, he assumes he has no other role to fill. Perhaps if they could find the patience that would allow them to respond with compassion, they would reach their child. Perhaps they would see that, under his hostility, he is not as wicked as he seems.

The wicked child has been on my mind not only because we have entered Nisan, but also because I fear that we, as a community, have begun to act like this child’s parents. We have devolved into name-calling, accusing one another of wickedness when we disagree, thus justifying excluding one another from our proverbial tables. After all, why engage if someone is inherently, irredeemably a sinner? We label the other as wicked to explain why we exist in our own echo chambers. We claim that there is nobody on the outside who is willing to engage to justify not even trying.

The gemara in Sotah records a dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda about what happened at the moment of the splitting of the sea. As Rabbi Meir tells the story, everyone was fighting about who got to enter the sea first. When Shevet Binyamin ran off into the water, Shevet Yehuda pelted them with rocks to try to stop them. What should have been a moment of beauty turned into a moment of violence, as the community devolved into infighting and lost sight of their larger goal. Rabbi Yehuda, on the other hand, says that nobody wanted to enter the sea first, and each tribe tried to send the other ahead. It was only when Nachshon ben Aminadav took it upon himself to enter into the water up to his chin that God told Moshe to hold out his hand, allowing the sea to split and the redemption to be completed.

In this season of our freedom, do we want to be like those in R. Meir’s story, pelting each other with stones? Or do we want to be like Nachshon, taking the first brave steps into a future that we can’t quite envision, but has the possibility to be more amazing than we ever imagined? It is Nachshon’s vulnerability that allows the redemption to become complete. Who among us will find the strength to become vulnerable in the face of that which we do not understand, or even vehemently disagree with; to listen, rather than to label? Surely Nachshon’s example is not easy to follow, but just as certainly, we will all be better off for trying. So let’s invite the wicked child to our table and try to really hear him. When we do, perhaps we will find that he is not as wicked as we thought. And perhaps that will be the moment that we will merit redemption.

About the Author
Rachel Rosenthal is a PhD candidate in Rabbinic Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a member of the faculty at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, where she teaches Talmud.
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