Naftali Brawer
Naftali Brawer

Rehabilitating the Wicked Son

The wicked son of the Haggadah asks a perfectly reasonable question:

“What is this service to you?”

In other words

“What is this all about?”

And for this, he is humiliated and silenced. We respond with a self-righteous sneer:

“Because of this, God did [things] for me, when I left Egypt (Exodus 13:8) for me but not for you, if you were there, you would not have been saved!”

Arthur Szyk: Four Sons, Lodz, 1934 Watercolor and gouache on paper (The Robbins Family Collection, via The Times of Israel)

If our intention is to shut this child up, that will certainly do the trick. He is unlikely to ever ask a religious question again. He might even get up and leave the Seder altogether considering how we have just excluded him. Is this the outcome we want?

It is also odd that the biblical proof text used in our response yields none of the sarcasm and judgement with which the Haggadah imbues it with.

“Because of this, God did [things] for me, when I left Egypt (Exodus 13:8).

What possessed the authors of the Haggadah to twist the simple meaning of this response beyond all recognition, turning it from a straightforward answer to a harsh rebuke?

We can better understand the strained dynamic between the parent and the “wicked” son if we contrast him with his brother, the “wise” son. Here is the wise son’s question:

“What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that God our Lord has commanded you?”

This question elicits a somewhat tedious tidbit of information specific to the evening’s ritual:

“One may not taste anything after the Afikomon.”

The wise and wicked son are not just asking different questions they are respectively asking an entirely different order of question.

The wise son asks what could be described as a lower order question. His question is located within an agreed system. He accepts the testimonies, statutes and laws. His question is about the specifics. He wants to know exactly what they are and how best to observe them. His is a relatively unchallenging question for the parent. There is nothing unsettling or destabilising in this child’s question. A little bit of technical information about the paschal offering is enough to satisfy this son’s curiosity.

Could it be that we label this child as wise because he makes us feel wise?

His brother however asks a higher order question. He is less interested in the specifics of the ritual, he wants to know its underlying purpose and value. His question exists outside the system.

He is essentially saying “Don’t fob me off with details, I want the bigger picture.” “What is Passover, Jewish peoplehood, Judaism, all about?  Tell me why it is all so important? Tell me why I should care?” This is not a question easily answered. It catches us off guard. Do we even have an adequate answer to this penetrating question? We’ve spent the past week or more preparing for the Seder, we’ve sorted out all the technical details, we know exactly how much matzah to eat, what to recite, when to raise our cup of wine. But have we given any thought as to the underlying purpose of it all? The “wicked” son’s question irks us because it doesn’t lend itself to easy and quick answers. It exposes us. It touches a raw nerve. “Why indeed does all this matter?” we wonder to ourselves. And to mask our own inability to provide a satisfactory answer, to silence our own inner doubt, we lash out at him.

But what if we paused for a moment before answering his question? What if instead of ascribing to this thoughtful child the worst motives, we valued his contribution as a way of opening our Seder to deeper meaning?

Our response then might then go something like this:

You, our son, are the seeker in this family and we are blessed to have you. You are an idealist and your persistent questioning reflects your integrity, even if it sometimes drives us to distraction. We don’t have easy answers to your questions but we respect them, and tonight we welcome them as a starting point from which together we might try to find deeper meaning in what we do. Let’s get to work.

No insults, no rushing from the table and slamming of doors. Our seeker sits up a little straighter. Inside he feels the warm glow of belonging. His eyes shine with excitement and anticipation as prepares to delve into the Seder in order to make sense of it all.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer is the Neubauer Executive Director at Tufts Hillel, and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University.
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