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Passover 2006

May 4, 2006

You! Open Up for Them!
By Rabbi David Greenstein

One of the famous sections of the traditional Haggadah’the Passover discussion of the Exodus that takes place at the seder’is the description of the questions of the Four Children and the suggested responses to them. Roughly translated, the four children are: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one and the one who does not know how to ask.

This section has had much attention devoted to it in the
voluminous literature that has developed around the themes of the Haggadah. Especially today, with our concerns for Jewish continuity and the multiplicity of ways that people have adopted as their own expressions of Jewish identity, there has been a lot of discussion around ways of understanding these ‘types.’ One problem has been to fruitfully use these constructs without falling into the trap of stereotyping people.

But even more particularly problematic is the image of the ‘wicked’ child. Many of us are uncomfortable with such a characterization of anyone, let alone someone whose sole known offence is the asking of a critical question.

The response to this child is also hard to understand. We are bidden to ‘set the child’s teeth on edge.’ This sounds aggressive and exaggerated.

One possible way to think about this dilemma is to rephrase the source of our discomfort with the text: Can it be, we ask, that just because the child doesn’t ask the question respectfully that s/he should be labeled as ‘wicked’ and answered harshly?

If this is our question, then we may find the answer to it in the Haggadah itself. The Haggadah tells us that we are absolutely right: a child who does not know how to ask a question properly is not wicked at all; such a child is, literally, the last of the four types, ‘the one who does not know how to ask.’

Who, then, is the wicked child? The wicked child is, well, any person who chooses to be wicked. We may be dismayed by the thought that a child of ours may be a wicked person, but that depressing thought is, unfortunately, simply a necessary outcome of our tradition’s very realistic picture of human beings. It is in our power to choose to be righteous or wicked. It is a human tragedy that some of us do, indeed, choose to be wicked. And it is a sad truth that every wicked person is the child of a parent, a parent who, all too often, wished for only goodness and blessing on their behalf. This child, who is already an adult (for adults never cease being the children of their parents) is not wicked because of asking a challenging or disrespectful question. There is actually no explanation for why this person has chosen to be wicked. But their wickedness is real. The Haggadah is concerned with a different point. It seeks to guide the parent so that the child’s wickedness, taunting, and rejection will not succeed in destroying the Passover experience of the parent who wishes to celebrate the festival. So the Haggadah advises that the response be one of personal commitment to the celebration: We are told to answer, ‘It is for this celebration that God took me personally out of Egypt.’ That is the end of our reply to the wicked one. In refusing to let the wicked destroy our joy we set their teeth on edge. (The rest of the text, ‘Had he been there he would not have been redeemed,’ is not a reply directed to the wicked one, but an editorial comment.) This is difficult advice offered for a difficult situation.

And what of the child who is not wicked, but is rebellious, challenging, demanding’the one who asks, but ‘who doesn’t know how to ask’? Our response to such a child is not aggressive or punitive at all. We are bidden by the Haggadah to do something very daunting”You! open up to him/her!’ We affirm, as we do in response to the wicked one, that we are personally engaged in this miraculous celebration. (The verse is the same verse quoted for the wicked child.) But this time, we are told to say this as a way of opening ourselves up to that child. ‘You! Open up to them!’

How do we do that? The Haggadah does not presume to tell us. That is for each of us to discover. May this Festival of Opening Up be a joyous one for us all.