Opening Doors For The Rebel
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Opening Doors For The Rebel

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 7:04 p.m. (Fri.); 8:04 p.m. (Sat.)
Torah: Ex. 12:21-51 (Sat.); Lev. 22:26-23:44 (Sun.); Num. 28:16-25 (both)
Haftorah: Joshua 3:5-7; 5:2-6:1; 6:27 (Sat.);
II Kings 23:1-9; 21-25 (Sun.)
Last Chametz: Friday10:51 a.m. (eating);
11:55 a.m. (burning)
Havdalah: 8:06 p.m. (Sun.)

The seder is an evening dedicated to the generations, to parents communicating to their children the agony and the ecstasy of Egyptian enslavement and Exodus. Indeed, the masterful booklet that tells the tale and structures the entire evening (“seder” means “order”) is called the Haggadah (literally, “telling”), from the verse “And you shall tell your children (vehigadeta) on that day” [Exodus 13:3].

But what if your children are not interested in hearing? How are we, the parents, teachers and communicators, supposed to respond in such a case?

The Haggadah is a masterful guide to the art of parenting and communicating our mesora. We can only successfully impart a value that we ourselves believe in and act out. Children will learn not by what we say but how we perform.

Our children-students must feel that they are the prime focus of the evening, and our message must be molded in such a way as to respond to their questions and concerns. Each individual must be given the opportunity to ask his/her questions and to receive appropriate answers (as per the Magadha’s “Four Children”). The atmosphere around the table must be experiential, punctuated by family stories, games (hiding the Afikoman), and warmed by wine, food and love.

But what of the apathetic, uninterested child? One of the “Four Children” is the “Wicked Child,” so designated because of the biblical question ascribed to him: “What is this service (avoda) to you?” [Ex. 12:26]. Why does the Haggadah assume a negative attitude on the part of this child, who is merely seeking an explanation for a ritual he doesn’t understand? The Haggadah’s answer seems unduly harsh: “‘What is this service to you’ — and not to him. 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’ [Ex. 13:8]. ‘God did for me’ and not for him! Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

The Haggadah’s abrasive response 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 Haggadah 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? The most fundamental message of the seder is 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 Haggadah teaches 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, 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 rituals, service and celebration. He says it applies to “you,” not to “him.”

The Haggadah tells us, when confronted by a child who excludes himself from the family ritual, to “hak’heh” his teeth; not the familiar Hebrew form hakeh (to strike or hit), but rather the more unusual form hak’heh, which means to blunt or remove the sharpness by means of the warmth of fire [Ecclesiastes 10:10; Yevamot 110b]. Tell him, says the Haggadah, that although we are living thousands of 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 celebrations and traditions. Tell him that the most important principle of our tradition is to feel oneself an integral part of a family, and to relive the slavery and freedom.

And don’t tell it to him matter-of-factly, by rote or animus. Tell it to him with the flame and passion of fire that blunts iron, with the warmth and love of a family that is claiming and welcoming its own as one who belongs.

And why the switch from second person to third person? Perhaps the child asked this question and left the table, leaving you to address him in/as a “third-person” no longer in your presence. Perhaps when we open the door for Elijah it is not to let him in I believe that we open the door in the spirit of Elijah, the herald of Redemption, who will restore the hearts of children to parents, and parents to children, for us to go out, to find the “Wicked Child” and lovingly restore him to the family seder. This is the greatest challenge of seder night.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin  is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat. 

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