The wicked child gets a bad rap. That’s the conclusion I reached on a recent cross-country trip to Washington, D.C., with a group of teenagers. You’d think that a 21-hour, non-stop bus ride would bring out the wicked child in even the wisest among us. Not so with this group.
They were a group of 70 Twin Cities Conservative, Reform, Modern Orthodox and unaffiliated teens travelling together from Minnesota to our nation’s capital for the March for Our Lives. Unlike some youth group gatherings, I had no concerns about behavior or attitude. Just the opposite. These teens were cooperative and caring, insightful and inclusive, mature and motivated. Despite the occasional discomfort, they took advantage of the opportunity to breakdown their movement walls and create a more diverse, expansive community.
By any measure, we’d call them wise children. But like the wicked child, they have just enough chutzpah, just enough impatience, frustration and anger to make a difference on the issue of gun violence prevention.
I saw it in the tears and steely gaze that said, “We won’t stop until we get results. We won’t give up.” I felt it in their words that were honest and penetrating, direct and demanding. I read it on their T-shirts that said: “#Dayeinu.” Enough death and loss. Enough excuses. Enough stagnation. And I heard it on the bus ride home as they plotted next steps to ensure that this moment becomes a movement.
This is the value of the wicked child and is why her voice is needed now more than ever in a world plagued by gun violence. For she is not afraid to call out “B.S.” when she hears it, to challenge assumptions, to reject narrow-mindedness. She is not afraid to take risks and face criticism. She is willing to work hard and know disappointment because he is full of fiery passion.
Yes, this “wicked” child thinks she knows more than she really does. Yes, she may be naïve or see things in black and white. But thank God for their stubbornness, for refusing to accept the status quo and for challenging us grown-ups to do more and to do better.
Considered in this light, the Hagaddah’s Rasha is far from evil. He’s a rebel with a cause. When he asks, “What does this mean to you,” he is not separating himself from community or country. She is not rejecting her faith or her people. Rather, she is rejecting a tradition that offers thoughts and prayers but fails to take action. She is rejecting ritual when it is a substitute for the pursuit of justice. In good teenage fashion, she is calling out the hypocrisy of adults who spew platitudes but fail to live the values they claim to cherish. Such was the “wickedness” I witnessed in D.C.
Before making our way to the March, our Minnesota contingent joined a nearby gathering of NFTY teens. Between prayers, one NFTY leader spoke powerfully about the prayer that moves her and motivates her:
“Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;
Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,
the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,
the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.
Disturb us, O God, and vex us;
let not Your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber;
let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.”
Our teens have taken these words to heart. And we are proud of them for it. After all, ever since they were young enough to sing “ma nishtana,” we encouraged them to question. We taught them to stand up for justice like Abraham. We charged them to work toward a time of ultimate peace and security. We invited them to open doors to the future and dream of a world redeemed.
So if this is their wickedness, may it only increase. To paraphrase the prophet, Isaiah: “and the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the children shall lead.” Indeed, they are.
Rabbi Alexander Davis is spiritual leader of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn.