And when your children say to you, ‘What is this service to you?’ You shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’” (Ex. 12:26-27)
No, you haven’t slept through the winter and woken up at the seder!
Welcome to the rasha, the “wicked” or “contrary” child, the second of four “sons” presented in a brilliant narrative in our Passover Haggadah. This midrash, commonly referred to as “The Four Sons” or “The Four Children,” illustrates the commandment to tell our children, and our children’s children, about the going out of Egypt and the wonders and miracles that God performed for us. Whether we follow a script in the form of a printed Haggadah or create a bibliodrama, we are commanded to tell the story, and to imagine ourselves as having been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.
This reading in our Passover Haggadah serves many purposes, and one is to remind us that there are many levels of understanding; there are many ways to ask questions and many appropriate ways to answer them. The chacham, the wise child, asks detailed questions and should receive detailed answers. The tam, or “simple” child asks simple questions and should be given brief, direct answers. The rasha, to which the verse in this week’s Torah reading refers, is considered to be a “wicked” or “contrary” child because his question, ending with the word, lachem–“to you”– suggested to our ancient Sages that this child had no interest in the history, tradition or rituals of his family and people. Warranted or not, this child receives a harsh response. More importantly, we are to respond to him and engage him, not ignore him.
The final child, she-ayno lo yodeah lishol, “the one who isn’t able to ask,” reminds us that we can’t always wait for questions to be asked, we need to take the initiative and begin. When our children ask, “What was it like when you were my age?” or, “Tell me what my father did when he was my age,” we can usually answer fairly easily, even if we edit or embellish a bit.
As parents, grandparents and elders in the community, this last one might be the hardest to deal with. Will our children ask us things like, “What do you wish you knew when you were my age?” “What would you do differently if you had to do life over?” “What do you want me to know”?
As a 50-something orphan, there are so many questions I wish I’d asked my parents, but either I didn’t think to, or I was afraid of the answer. I am the she ayno lo yodeah lishol, unable to ask. In fairness, my parents and grandparents probably didn’t know where to begin.
The commandment to tell the Passover story in every generation can serve as a reminder to all of us, to tell our family stories–the happy and painful ones–and share our hopes and dreams with those who will inherit the world from us.