The Passover Seder we will soon be celebrating is an evening dedicated first and foremost to the relationship between the generations, to parents communicating to their children the agony and the ecstasy of Egyptian enslavement and exodus – that seminal biblical drama which most profoundly forged our Israeli identity and traditions. Indeed, the masterful booklet that tells the tale and structures (“seder” means order) the entire evening is called the Haggada (literally, telling), from the biblical verse “And you shall tell your children [vehigadeta] on that day” (Exodus 13:3).
But what if your children – or one of your children – is not interested in hearing? What if he or she is willing to participate in the meal, but is totally tuned out of and turned off to the ritual that surrounds and informs the meal? How are we, the parents, teachers and communicators, supposed to respond in such a case? The Haggada is not only a text of the Egyptian experience; it is also a masterful guide to the art of effectively parenting-communicating the message of our mesora (tradition). By its very place as the centerpiece of a much-anticipated evening dedicated to the performance of many commandments – commandments that parents are to experience together with their children – we learn that we can only successfully impart a value that we ourselves believe in and act out; children will learn not by what we say, but by how we perform.
Moreover, our children-students must feel that they are the prime focus of the evening, and not mere adjuncts to an adult happening; and the message must be molded in such a way as to respond to their questions and concerns (Maggid begins with the “Four Questions”). Each individual must be given the opportunity to ask his/her questions and to receive answers appropriate to both question and questioner (note the “four children” of the Seder). Finally, the atmosphere around the table must be more experiential than cerebral, punctuated by familial stories and the fun of games (hide-the-afikoman), and warmed by wine, food and love. Such is the Haggada’s formula for effective communication between parents and children – not just one evening a year, but every single day of every year.
But what of the apathetic, uninterested child? One of the four prototypical children of the Seder is the “wicked child,” whom the author of the Haggada designates as such because of the biblical question ascribed to him: “What is this service [avoda] to you?” (Exodus 12:26) Why does the Haggada assume a negative attitude on the part of this child, who is merely seeking a relevant explanation for a ritual he doesn’t understand? The Haggada’s answer to this child also seems unduly harsh. “‘What is this service to you’ – and not to him. And because he took himself out of the historic Jewish community, he denied the basic principle. And so you must set his teeth on edge [hak’heh], and tell him, ‘It is because of this [ritual] that God did for me [so many wonders] in taking me out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8). ‘God did for me’ and not for him! Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.”
The seemingly abrasive response of the Haggada seems to be the very opposite of everything we’ve been positing: Set his teeth on edge! Does this mean (God forbid) rap him in the mouth? And why switch from second person to third person in the middle of the dialogue? First the Haggada reads, “And you tell him,” and then concludes – as if you aren’t even speaking to him – “Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.”
Has he been closed out of the family Seder? I believe that the most fundamental message of the Seder – indeed, of family dynamics, of classroom management and of national policy as well – is to be inclusive and not exclusive, to make everyone feel wanted and accepted rather than rejected or merely tolerated.
Indeed, it is in the context of the response to the wicked child that the Haggada teaches that the most basic principle of our faith is to include oneself – as well as everyone who can possibly be included – within the historical community of Israel, to be part of the eternal chain of Jewish being, to be a member of the family.
Therefore, the problem with this child’s question is not his search for relevance; that is to be applauded and deserves a proper response. The problem is that he has excluded himself from the familial-national celebration; he sees it as applying to “you” and not to “him.”
The author of the Haggada tells the head of the family, when confronted by a child who excludes himself from the family ritual, to “hak’heh” his teeth; not the familiar Hebrew form hakeh, which means to strike or hit, but rather the unusual Hebrew hak’heh, which means to blunt or remove the sharpness by means of the warmth of fire (Ecclesiastes 10:10; B.T. Yevamot 110b).
Tell him, says the author of the Haggada, that although we are living thousands of the years after the fact, God took me – and him/her as my child – out of Egypt, because we are all one historic family, united by our family celebrations and traditions.
Tell him that the most important principle of our tradition is to feel oneself an integral part of a family that was once enslaved and is now free – and to relive this message of the evils of slavery and the glories of freedom, because if they happened to our forebears, it is as if they happened to us. Since we were formed by them, we are them and they are us. And so is he/she.
And don’t tell it to him matter-of-factly by rote or harshly with animus. Tell it to him with the flame and passion of fire that blunts sharp iron, with the warmth and love of a family that is claiming and welcoming its own as one who belongs – no matter what. Encourage the child to take part in and feel a part of the familial- national celebration. Then, but only then, will the child feel redeemed.
And why the switch from second person to third person? Perhaps the child asked this question, and left the table. He spoke and ran, leaving you no choice but to address him as a third person no longer in your presence. What do you do then? I would suggest that when we open the door for Elijah, it is not in order to let the prophet in. After all, anyone who can visit every Jewish Seder more or less simultaneously will not be obstructed by a closed door.
I believe that we open the door – in the spirit of the herald of redemption who will restore the hearts of the children to the parents and the parents to the children – in order for us to go out, to find the “wicked child” and lovingly restore him to the family Seder table. This is the greatest challenge of the Seder night.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.