The Jewish Holiday of Passover begins on Monday night, March 29th. I hope that everyone has a Happy Passover!
The primary reason for the seder, the ritual meal of Passover, is to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt to children. The four children section of the haggadah, the book used at the seder meal, is meant to help parents understand how to teach this story to their children.
As good teachers know, children learn in many ways and have different natural abilities and skills. The four children section reminds us that at least four different types of children would be sitting around the Passover table. As a soon to be new parent of twins this summer, I too want to learn what the rabbis taught about pedagogy and how to engage children in the story.
The wise child wants to know more about the laws and rules of Passover, and parents are to explain these to him or her in great detail. The wicked child comes next, and I’m going to skip him for a moment. The simple child asks: “What is this all about?” and we are to answer simply that God saved us from Egypt. And for the child who does not know how to ask, we are to be proactive, telling him or her about the Exodus.
The wicked child is perhaps the most interesting of the four children. He or she asks: “What does this service mean to you?” It is the inflection of the question that is important. The wicked child asks this question with an aggressive tone, demonstrating that he excludes himself from Judaism. “What does this service mean to you and not to me?” The response, according to the rabbis, is to answer harshly, and to say that this child would have been left behind when God saved the people from Egypt.
According to the rabbis, what made this child wicked was that he or she did not want to be included in the Jewish people. It is one thing to disagree with Jewish teachings. Part of being a Jew is to question, to explore and to not accept things on face value. But if you put yourself outside of the Jewish fold, refusing to question or be engaged Judaism in any way, you sever your connection to our faith and our people.
In my previous congregation, one Bar Mitzvah boy spent a great deal of effort rebelling against Judaism. It was very difficult to work with him to prepare his Bar Mitzvah speech. This young man simply did not want to be in Hebrew School, much less sitting with the rabbi, and he was not afraid to tell me so. Working on that speech with him was like pulling teeth, because he absolutely refused to be of any help whatsoever.
Finally, one day he said to me: “Rabbi I hate it here at the Temple. I’m only here because my mom makes me come.” I paused for a moment and I replied: “OK. So what do we do now?” I think this disarmed him a bit, as he expected me to reply harshly to him, in the same way the rabbis said we should respond to the wicked child. He thought it over for a minute and said: “It’s not that I hate being Jewish, because I am proud to be Jew. I just hate coming to the Temple.” Then I asked him what he liked about being Jewish, we began talking, and his speech developed from there.
I came to realize that the rebellion of that Bar Mitzvah student was not against Judaism, nor did he wish to exclude himself from our religion. He was simply a teenager who did not like coming to Hebrew School. I also learned that by responding calmly to this young man, and not matching his rebellion with my own frustration, I was able to get through to him.
The rabbis were right to teach us that children who exclude themselves from the Jewish people are the hardest to reach. But they were wrong to be so quick to label those children as wicked. Sometimes it just takes a well-placed question to show a teen or even an adult that he can still be Jewish even if he disagrees or dislikes certain parts of our religion.
Human beings are much more complex than a one word label can possibly describe. Rather than call our children, or ourselves, wise, wicked or simple, we benefit from realizing that we are all of the above. One of my favorite haggadahs offers a wonderful commentary that can help us see beyond simple labels. When sitting around the seder table, each participant can finish the following sentences: “I am like the wise child when…” “I am like the wicked child when…” “I am like the simple child when…” “I am like the child who does not know how to ask when…”