Tough Love for Passover's 'Wicked' Child

As parents, we must ensure our children understand that it is their behavior that is wicked; not the individual. And as parents, we must understand that our communication must emanate from unconditional love.

“The wicked child – what does he say? ‘What is this service to you?’ To you – and not to him. And in that removal from the community, he denies the most basic principle of our faith. And therefore, you should blunt his teeth and say to him, ‘It is because of what G-d did for me when I went out from Egypt.’ For me – not for him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

So it is written in the Four Children section of the Passover Hagaddah.

I always struggle with how to relate to the Haggadah’s description of the rashah, the wicked child. Rashah, as an appellation, is generally reserved in our tradition for those select evil individuals who sought to physically and spiritually destroy the Jewish people. There is Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet, who sought to curse the Jews and instead blessed them through G-d’s intervention. There is also Haman, a precursor to Hitler who in the Purim story planned unsuccessfully to exterminate all the Jews.

The rashah, by distancing himself from family and the community, defines himself outside the covenantal relationship. By so doing, he will not be redeemed and would be subject to Divine retribution, as were Bilaam and Haman.
There is precedent in our tradition for the possibility of taking preemptive punitive action against a child. The Torah, in Deuteronomy chapter 21, verses 18 to 21, presents the ben sorer umoreh, the rebellious and wayward son, who after exhibiting specific behaviors, is first flogged by beit din, a court composed of three judges. If he continues in his ways, he is brought back by his parents to beit din. The judges then, after careful examination and determination of a future wicked path, have the power to sentence the child to death. This is an impossible scenario for anyone, particularly a parent. In the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, which deals with this topic, it is made clear that there never was and never will be a ben sorer umoreh. But, in shocking us with the extreme circumstances of this case, the Torah calls parents to task with the necessity of dealing seriously with a child’s inappropriate behavior.

We may similarly approach the admonition to blunt the teeth of the rashah. I heard recently from Rabbi Chayim Soloveichik that the lesson that needs to be taught the wicked child is that everyone has the right to their opinion, but the way one expresses himself or herself must be appropriate and respectful. Our words do matter, as do they define our character.

In communicating this message, parents need to make sure their children understand that it is the behavior that is wicked; not the individual. Our carefully worded correction – for we, too, need to be cognizant of the way we express ourselves - must emanate from our deepest unconditional love for them.

“Banim atem l’Hashem Elokeichem,” You are children to Hashem, your G-d (Deuteronomy 14:1). In the Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin, Rabbi Yehuda says we must behave according to the will of G-d, for only then do we merit being called “children.” According to Rabbi Meir, whether we behave according to G-d’s will or not, we are still to be called His children. And Rabbi Meir’s opinion of G-d’s unconditional love is the authoritative decision of the text.

There’s an inspiring teaching of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach that is related in The Carlebach Haggadah:

Here’s the most beautiful Belzer Torah. The Haggadah says, ‘When you talk to the wicked son blunt his teeth.’ It’s a little heartbreaking – he came to the Seder, after all… Now the word, rashah, is made up of three letters. The outside letters are reish and ayin making rah, ‘bad’; but the inside letter is shin. What does this mean? The three lines that make up the shin symbolize Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. If the shin, with its three lines, is on the inside of the rashah, that’s to tell you that every Jew in the world is connected to our forefathers. His inside, his neshamah (soul), is connected to them. So we tell the father, ‘blunt his teeth – shinav, but it also means his shin.’ If you want to educate the child, knock his shin loose from the rest of him; bring out his inner nature…Give him courage. Tell him not to make you think that he’s not holy, because you know that he really is holy.

This year, at our Passover seders, may we all, as children, ask the most beautiful, thought-provoking questions in the most considerate manner. And may we, as parents, provide answers that speak to our children according to their individual needs, revealing their inner holiness, in the security of our and G-d’s unconditional love.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations.