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My Search for the Soul of Zion – 136 Who is the “Wicked Child” of the Passover Haggadah?

Dear Friends,

There is a section within the Passover Haggadah which opens with the following statement:

Concerning four children does the Torah speak: a wise one, a wicked one, a simple one, and one who is unable to ask.”

Rav Yehudah Leib Chasman (1869-1935) was a noted teacher of mussar – Torah teachings related to the ethical and spiritual development of our character. Rav Chasman offers an interpretation of the above statement from the Haggadah which can guide each of us. According to Rabbi Chasman, the '”four children” should not be understood as four distinct personalities, for the traits exemplified by all of them struggle within each of us. One moment we are the wise child, the next moment the wicked child; one instant we are the simple child, the next instant we are unable to ask.

According to this interpretation, the metaphor of the “four children” is referring to personality traits within us that need to be developed or changed. In this sense, we are “children” in need of further growth or change; thus, the “wicked child” is not referring to a particular person, but to an attitude or trait which needs to be changed in order to experience growth. The “wicked child” will be the focus of this letter, as a deeper understanding of this metaphor can lead to a deeper understanding of the true freedom which gives Zion its spiritual and universal purpose.

In the following passage from the Haggadah, we learn that the “wicked child” questions the value of the avodah – service – of Passover:

The wicked child – what does he say? ‘Of what purpose is this service to you?’ He says, ‘To you,’ thereby excluding himself; moreover, by excluding himself from the community, he denies the essential principle.”

This “child” has noticed that the entire spectrum of the Passover mitzvos – from cleaning the house of chametz (leavened food) to the detailed rituals of the Passover Seder – consists of service. The child cannot help but wonder: “Is this how we celebrate the Festival of Freedom? The entire celebration seems to consist of nothing but burdensome service!” According to the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 10:4), the “wicked child” is asking the parent: “What is this bother with which you burden us every year?” Based on this interpretation of the Jerusalem Talmud, a noted classical commentator on the Haggadah, Rav David Abudarham, states that the “wicked child” is offering the following challenge: What is this bother with which you burden us every year which delays our meal and which darkens the joy of the Festival?

In other words, this “child” is not against having a Passover meal to celebrate the Festival; this “child” is against the spiritual service of mitzvos which accompanies the festival meal.

The “child” who rejects the spiritual service of Passover says, “Of what purpose is this service to you?” According to the Haggadah, this “child” has separated himself from our community. Why is this so? After all, this child still wants to eat the Passover food. As we discussed in this series, our prophets stress again and again that the raison d’etre of our community is to serve the Divine purpose through fulfilling the mitzvos of the Torah; thus, someone who willfully rejects our raison d’etre has separated himself from our community.

The Haggadah also stated that this “child” has rejected the essential principle of our heritage. In order to begin to understand this statement, we need to remember that the Torah, the heritage of our people, is described in the following manner:

She is a tree of life'” (Proverbs 3:18).

The Torah is a tree of life which extends her “branches” – her mitzvos – into every area of life. Within each area of human existence, the Torah provides a sacred service which elevates and sanctifies that aspect of life.

We may not always find it easy to follow this elevating path of sacred service. If we're honest with ourselves, we can probably find at least one area of life where we are not always eager to serve, and we therefore find ourselves saying with some resentment, “What is this service to you?”

The following basic teachings which we discussed in the previous letter – “Rediscovering the Freedom of Passover” – explain why a rejection of this path of service is a rejection of the basic principle of our heritage:

The Torah states:

And Hashem God took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden – l'avdah u’l’shamrah – to serve it and to preserve it. (Genesis 2:15)

To serve it and to preserve it” – This two-part mandate reveals the altruistic purpose of the human being’s creation. And the following ancient teaching reveals that this two-part mandate expresses the altruistic purpose of all the mitzvos in the Torah:

The Divine mandate to “serve” the Garden represents mitzvos aseh – the mitzvos of the Torah which call upon us to engage in actions which nurture and elevate the world, including ourselves. And the Divine mandate to “guard” the Garden represents mitzvos lo sa’asay – the mitzvos of the Torah which prohibit actions which damage and degrade the world, including ourselves. (See “Tikunei Zohar” 55)

When we serve Hashem through the mitzvos – the Divine mandates of the Torah - we gain the freedom to become the altruistic human beings we are meant to be.

The resentful “wicked child” has failed to understand that the mitzvos which we do at the Passover Seder are deeds of service which express the very purpose of the Exodus from Egypt, for these deeds of service give us true freedom. The Haggadah therefore instructs us to cite the following verse in our response to the “wicked child”:

It is because of this that Hashem acted for me when I came out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8)

It is because of this” – So that I will fulfill in the future the mitzvos of Passover. (Commentary of Rashi)

Unlike the “wicked child,” the “wise child” realizes that the mitzvos of Passover remind us of the following essential principle of the Torah: We were created to serve! The Haggdah therefore states that the “wise child” asks the parent this question:

What are the testimonies, statutes, and social laws that Hashem, our God has commanded you?”

The “wise child” is eager to learn about the mitzvos of our God and also eager to fulfill them. May we all rediscover the “wise child” that is within each of us.

Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
And a Joyous Festival,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

P.S. There are other interpretations of the “four children” which understand them to be four distinct personalities, including one that is called a “rasha” – a wicked person. It is a topic for another discussion, but we need to be aware that our tradition usually defines a Jewish rasha as a member of our people who received a good Torah education and grew up in a good Torah environment, but who willfully rebels against the sacred teachings and precepts of the Torah. A member of our people who fails to fulfill the Torah due to a lack of a good Torah education and the lack of a good Torah environment is not considered to be a willful and wicked rebel. We cited in a previous letter the following related teaching of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld regarding the Jews of his era (late 19th and early 20th centuries) who were not Torah-observant:

Most Jews today who have abandoned mitzvos are prisoners of alien cultures and improper education. Were it not for the effects of the long and bitter exile, they would certainly find their way back to their faith and origins.”

Hazon – Our Universal Vision:

An Excerpt from the ''Hirsch Haggadah''

''We shall thank You with a new song for our redemption and for the deliverance of our souls.'' (Passover Haggadah)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the above statement, writes:

As for the redemption of Yisrael and humanity - though mankind has expended its entire store of virility and morality and though Yisrael has forfeited its independence, energy, even the consciousness of its mission, as well as the power and strength to carry it out, yet: ''their Redeemer lives'' (see Job 19:25). The One Who lives forever, the God of Yisrael and the Redeemer of mankind, He is their Goel (Redeemer). Every human soul that has lapsed, every Jewish man or woman who has opted out of his or her mission, humanity forfeiting its destiny, Yisrael not attaining theirs - they are His loss!'' When a human being suffers,'' Rabbi Meir teaches us, ''the Shechinah - Divine Presence - expresses it thus: 'My head is heavy, My arm is heavy''' (Sanhedrin 46a). And in the words of Isaiah: ''In all their troubles, He is troubled'' (63:9).

''Hashem will not cast off His People, nor forsake His inheritance'' (Psalms 94:14). He has life for every death, strength for all weakness, freedom and independence for any enslavement. Mankind and the Jewish People are His! He rises up on their behalf when they are prostrated. He is their Father, redeeming them from bondage and perdition to freedom and life. (Page 159)

The ''Hirsch Haggadah'' stresses the universal message of Passover, and it is published by Feldheim: