The Best Question of the Passover Seder

Children have an unusual ability when it comes to confronting our spiritual hypocrisy as parents and as adults; very often they get to the essence of the problem as they perceive things. Frequently, as parents we often fail to hear the questions our young people ask of us; often we overreact whenever we feel that our beliefs and values are being questioned or attacked.

Rather than listening with an inner ear, as parents, we often react with harshness and anger. Sometimes we wish our children were more respectful and compliant, or at least, “mind their place” at the Seder table and not misbehave or draw undue attention to themselves. As any Woody Allen fan certainly knows, passionate family discussions have always been a part of Jewish life since ancient times. Unanimity has never been the goal of any kind of discussion wherever you have two or more Jews together engaged in dialogue. Passover is no exception to this rule.

During Passover, this thought finds expression in the question of the “Rasha ” (better known to most of us as the “Wicked Child”). Without his presence and participation, the entire Seder would be a dull experience. Here is a literal translation of the controversial passage we read in the Passover Hagadah:

The wicked child, what does that he say? “What is this service to you?” Note what the Torah says, “To you,” but not to him. Because he has excluded himself from the community, he has denied a basic teaching of the faith. Therefore you shall smack his teeth and tell him, It is because of this that God wrought for me in my going out of Egypt (Exod. 13:8) “For me,” but not him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

The above translation poses two obvious problems:

(1) As a parent, I have often wondered how anyone could call their child “Wicked”? The glaring meaning of “Rasha” is arguably offensive. Obviously, some modern translations prefer to sugarcoat their translation by giving the “Rasha” a less offensive epithet, e.g., “deviant,” or “troublesome.” I am unsure whether the “Deviant Son” is much of an improvement over the “Wicked Son” for both translations are clearly judgmental and pejorative. If we are to choose a less offensive title, let us describe him or her as a “Wayward Child,” or perhaps more accurately a “Rebellious Child.” At any rate, our Rasha is a person who is a young person who stands perilously close to the edge of his/her Judaism; without a proper pedagogical response, the “Rasha” may grow up to disaffiliate as a Jew.

(2) Now, to add injury to the insult of being labeled a “Rasha,” the rabbinic framers of the Hagadah recommend that the father ought to give his child a “patch in panim” a smack in the mouth for asking such impudent questions. Unfortunately, not all the rabbis of the Talmudic era were skilled educators.

So we wonder: Why does the Rasha strike such a visceral note? The anger of the father deserves special attention. Why does he get so upset? How could a simple question push a parent to act so violently at the family Seder?

In psychological terms, violent responses often occur as part of a animal or person’s defense mechanism. When somebody threatens us, we sometimes react harshly—depending upon the degree of the offense. Clearly, the Rasha has touched a raw nerve in his father. The anger that the father experiences may derive from personal insecurities and faith issues he may have about the Seder and its meaning. He may not know very much about the meaning of the rituals he and his family are performing! It may be quite possible that the father does not perceive the metaphor, the mythic and symbolic content of the Seder. To the father, the story ought to be told exactly as it is written; in his mind, the Hagadah text does not demand from its readers anything more.

If my conjecture is correct, the Rasha’s question now begins to make more sense, for s/he may be a child who is dissatisfied with superficial answers. The father may love tradition, but he lacks the ability to articulate to his rebellious adolescent child what it means to be a Jew especially in a modern age. Of all the children who are present at the Seder table, the “Rasha” is asking the best question of them all!

If we were to ask the Rasha, how would he describe his father? Perhaps he might say something like this, “My father is distraught because he’s lost in a world of religious nostalgia and tradition. He only knows what his parents have done before him; he himself never ventures beyond the narrow periphery of religious tradition. He never shows any desire to question his faith like I do. For this reason, I feel I must confront him with a simple question: “What does this service mean to YOU? If the Seder has no deeper meaning for YOU, why should it have any special meaning for ME? How can I make this Seder a self-authenticating experience if the Seder is nothing more than a mechanical exercise? Until I find out the answer, I will not be subject to you or any tradition until I know for sure what it really means, assuming that it means anything at all.”

In diagnostic terms, we could say that the “Rasha” sees himself as apart from the mainstream Jewish community. True, by asking such a non-inclusionary question, he has denies a basic tenant of our faith the notion of community. Yet, the isolation the Rasha feels makes it hard, if not impossible, for him to identify with the community.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, children have a way of discerning a parent’s Achilles heel. A child knows when parents are just breezing through the motions of religious life. Maybe the rebellious child has a good reason to rebel, for s/he instinctively knows when a parent is real or unreal. The Rasha may well see something hollow about his “religious” father. Unlike his wiser older brother, he won’t be satisfied with superficial answers. Nor will he include himself in the community of faith until he finds a compelling enough reason.

Instead of befriending the Rasha’s question, the father tells him that if he would have been in Egypt, he would not have been among those who were rescued. This kind of answer only compounds the spiritual isolation the Rasha feels.

Will the Rasha look back at his childhood with a sense of nostalgia? Will s/he participate in Seder when upon reaching adulthood? The child of today will eventually become the parent of tomorrow. The memory of his father’s smack on his face will linger on for years, and the Seder will be a permanent symbol of the hurtfulness and shame he experienced long ago at his father’s Seder.

Perhaps this is why the father gives the same identical answer to both the rebellious and silent child. Maybe the silent child feels the same sense of alienation that his Rasha brother did, but instead of verbalizing it, he keeps his cynicism and questions to himself. Once again, the pious father quotes the same verse he gave to his older brother, the Rasha. This is what God did for me when I left Egypt …  as if to say, “Follow the tradition or else you will end up like your brother …”

What the father fails to notice is that the quest for wisdom is often associated with rebellion. The rebel feels like an outsider whose very being and presence does not belong among ordinary people. Collin Wilson, in his seminal work, “The Outsider” describes the Outsider as a person who is living at the edge. He challenges cultural and religious values and most importantly, he stands for what he perceives is Truth. Unlike his compliant brother, our Passover “Outsider” is not willing to just drift through life or go through the motions of tradition the Rasha may be a person who is seeking a firsthand religious experience. According to Wilson, the Outsider feels a certain “dis-ease” at being an outsider.

Simply put, the Outsider wants to cease to be an Outsider.

He wants to be integrated as a human being, achieving a fusion between heart and soul

He wants to understand the soul and its workings.

He wants to get beyond the trivial.

He wants to express himself so he can better understand himself.

He sees a way out via intensity, extremes of experience.

I think that Wilson’s description of the Outsider certainly comes very close to our Hagadah’s profile of the Rasha. Like the Outsider, the Rasha wants to be included like everybody else and the proof is he is trying to participate at the family Seder. Unlike his older but “wiser” brother, the Rasha wants an answer about the Seder that will tantalize his heart and soul and not just appeal to his intellect or make him feel good about “tradition.”

In a community where there is great spiritual disconnection, the rebellious child is seen as a threat; the wise child is seen as compliant, and the simple child is seen as defective or as a fool and lastly, the silent child is seen as empty. The healthiness of the community is measured by the way it treats its children. For this reason, the Sages created the Seder as a diagnostic and prescriptive way of measuring the spiritual healthiness of the community.

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