This week’s Torah portion is Exodus 12:21-51, for Hol HaMo’ed Pesach, for the first day of Passover.
The Passover seder 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 the entire evening is called the Haggadah (literally, telling), from the biblical verse “And you shall tell your children 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? The Haggadah 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 tradition. By its very place as the centerpiece of a much-anticipated evening dedicated to the performance of many commandments 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. The maggid begins with the four questions. Each individual must be given the opportunity to ask his or her questions and to receive answers appropriate to both question and questioner. Finally, the atmosphere around the table must be more experiential than cerebral, punctuated by familial stories and the fun of games, such as hiding and finding the afikomen, and warmed by wine, food and love. Such is the Haggadah’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 Haggadah designates as such because of the biblical question ascribed to him: “What is this service to you?” (Exodus 12:26) Why does the Haggadah 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 Haggadah’s answer to this child also seems unduly harsh. 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 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.”
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? I believe that the most fundamental message of the seder is to be inclusive and not exclusive, to make everyone feel wanted and accepted rather than rejected or merely tolerated.
It is in the context of the response to the wicked child that the Haggadah 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.
The author of the Haggadah 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. Tell him, says the author of the Haggadah, 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. We are them and they are us. And so is he or she.
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.
I would suggest that when we open the door for Elijah, it is not in order to let the prophet in. 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.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the founding chief rabbi of Efrat.