“The Torah refers to four sons,” says the Passover Haggadah, meaning there are four verses in the Torah that can serve as answers to the questions posed by four different kinds of sons. Each question reflects reflects the unique approach of the questioner, and the multifaceted Torah answers each in accordance with his particular inclinations.
The wise son, the nave son and the son who does not how to ask a question differ from one another in terms of intellectual abilities, while the wicked son differs from them in terms of his perceptions and opinions. The verses the Haggadah attributes to each of the four originate in different contexts: The wise son asks about the meaning of the commandments in general; the nave son, about the commandment concerning redemption of firstborn males; the son who does not know how to ask does not ask anything at all; and only the verse referring to the wicked son’s question deals directly with Passover.
The following midrash, from the Mekhilta, on the verse beginning, “And thou shalt tell thy son” (Exodus 13:8), speaks only about the wicked son, and offers another interpretive option as to his role and his place in the Passover narrative:
“It is written, ‘And thou shalt tell thy son.’ Does that mean you should begin telling your son the Passover narrative from the beginning of the month of Nisan [that is, two weeks before the holiday]? No, because the Torah states, ‘[And thou shalt tell thy son] in that day.’ Does that mean that you should tell your son the Passover narrative on Passover eve? No, because the Torah states, ‘It is because of that,’ which means you should tell him the narrative only when matza and the bitter herbs have been placed before you at the seder table.
“Why is it written, ‘It is because of that which the Lord did for me’? Because the son asks you, ‘What mean ye by this service?’ [Exod. 12:26]. The person asking this is the wicked son, who has excluded himself from the rest of society; since he has done so, you should do the same and exclude him from society. You should therefore say to him: It is written, ‘It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.’ The Lord did it for me, not for you. And since you have excluded yourself from society, I can tell you that, had you been there in Egypt, you would not have been redeemed [in the Exodus]’” (Mechilta, Parashat Bo:17).
In chapter 13 of the Book of Exodus, in connection with the commandment to eat matza on Passover and the prohibition on consumption of hametz (all leavened goods) during the festival, God commands Moses to say to the Children of Israel: “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).
The Torah does not explicitly state the meaning of “It is because of that.” Why did God take Israel out of Egypt? If the reference is to the verse concerning leavened and unleavened bread, that would mean God took Israel out of Egypt so we would eat matza, not leavened bread, on Passover. If the reference is to “And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in thy mouth; for with a strong hand hath the Lord brought thee out of Egypt” (Exod. 13:9) – that would mean God took us out of Egypt so we would have the Torah’s words on our lips at all times.
For their part, the sages, aspiring to interpret the Torah text in as practical a manner as possible, conclude that Exodus 13:8 refers to the correct time for the Passover narrative to be recounted.
The Torah also states, “This day ye go forth in the month Abib [i.e., in the month of spring – Nisan]” (Exod. 13:4). Does that mean the Passover narrative should be recounted during the entire month of Nisan? No, the homilist replies: It should be recounted only on the precise day on which Israel was liberated from Egypt, the 14th day of Nisan. If so, asks the homilist, should we begin to recount the Passover narrative while it is still daylight, on Passover eve?
The homilist next focuses on the phrase, “It is because of that,” arguing that the word “that” refers not to other words appearing in earlier or later verses but rather to concrete objects placed before the person recounting the Passover narrative. The word “that” refers to the hour when matza and the bitter herbs are on the table and when they can be pointed to. In other words, the Passover narrative must be recounted at night, when everyone is sitting at the seder table.
The homilist then focuses on the words “for me.” Why does the Torah command the individual recounting the Passover narrative to use the first-person singular, implying that only the narrator was liberated in the Exodus whereas the people he is addressing were not? The answer is that the listeners are not among those who were liberated from bondage in Egypt, says the midrash, adding a hypothetical question from Exodus 12: “What mean ye by this service?”
However, in contrast with the four sons passage in the Haggadah, the midrash does not contrast the wicked son with the other three sons. Instead, it seems that he is the only son the Torah refers to with regard to Passover. He is not a heretic and does not deserve to be rebuked. His father is not commanded, according to the midrash, to exclude him from Jewish society; instead, his father uses the same rhetoric of exclusion employed by his son.
Memory and oblivion are interconnected. People begin to focus on the preservation of memory when they understand that they are beginning to forget important events. The sense of belonging to a given society is not passed on genetically from generation to generation, but must instead be created by means of narratives. The younger generation does not remember and therefore must ask those who do, “What mean ye by this service?”
In replying to the son who asks this question, the father must act in accordance with the principle, “A father should teach his son in accordance with the latter’s inclinations” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Pesachim). The father should not force his son to join the historical narrative, but should instead reply using the same turn of phrase employed by his son.
If so, why does the above midrash call this son “wicked,” and why does it put in the narrator’s mouth the humiliating words, “had you been there in Egypt, you would not have been redeemed”? The midrash is emphasizing the inevitable gap between parents and their children, for the latter are necessarily further removed from historical events than the former. This emphasis contains a restrained didactic rebuke of the younger generation, but also seeks to induce that generation to join the bearers of collective memory.
Remembrance is built on fear of oblivion. This is why the Passover seder night was created – to reconstruct and reenact the past with narratives that have been told for generations. The reconstruction of the Passover narrative is based on the fact that the listeners have forgotten it. Thus, only those who have removed themselves from the collective can hear the narrative and become connected to it.
The wicked son is not one of a number of possible “options,” but embodies reality: Every son is wicked. Every son is born outside the collective. There is only one moment in the year when children can be reconnected with the collective. The midrash defines the wicked son as an individual who has become alienated and also specifies the very instant when that son can be restored to the collective – on Passover night, when the historical reconstruction is in progress, when matza and bitter herbs are on the table.