The Joy of Debate: Who is the Wicked Child and Shabbat HaHodesh

Today is Shabbat HaHodesh. It marks the beginning of the month of Nissan, the month of Passover. Passover, even though it falls in the seventh month is another new year. Today’s maftir portion tells us about the preparation for that first Passover. How to sacrifice a lamb and put the blood on the doorposts. How G-d will pass over the houses so marked. How to eat lamb together with matzah and maror.

The Passover seder is set up to get our children—and our chidlren’s children and their chidlren’s children to ask a question. A simple question. Why? What is this service to you? Why is this night different? Why are we doing this? Why? Stephanie Marshall who is teaching our Alef Bet Hebrew told me this week that she wrote a master’s level paper on why a seder was the best lesson plan ever. The rabbis really understood pedagogical methodology. Kids, of all generations remember the Passover story. Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday in the American Jewish community. It has staying power.

One part of the seder, shortly after the Four Questions, are the Four Children. What I want to do this morning is look at how various Hagadot treat the Four Children. I don’t know about you—but I always figured out how to read the Wise Child section as a young girl. I know I didn’t want to be the wicked child or the simple child or the one who didn’t know how to ask. OK—so maybe that was the Wise Guy child.

There are lots of versions of the Four Children. They have been debated throughout the generations by rabbis and by people at every seder. One of my favorite haggadahs is “This Different Night”, partly because it shows many illustrations through the generations of the Four Children. (I passed around my falling apart copy of this Haggadah and I ordered a new one after Shabbat).

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev adds this to the discussion: “The one who knows not how to ask, that is myself, Levi Yitzvhak of Berditchev. I do not know how to ask you, Lord of the world, and even if I did know, I could not bear to do it. How could I venture to ask you: Why…we are driven from one exile into another, why are foes are allowed to torment us so much? But in the Haggadah, the parent of the one who does not know how to ask is told, ‘It is for you to disclose the answer to the child.’ And the Haggadah refers to the Torah in which it is written, ‘And you should tell your child.’ ‘Lord of the universe, am I not your child? (Even if I cannot begin to formulate the question, you, Lord, can begin to answer them for me.)”

This morning I want to talk about the “Wicked Child”. There are several interpretations of the wicked child. The first that makes sense to me is that each of us, is each of these children. So from time to time each of us is the wicked one, the black sheep of the family, the rebellious teenager perhaps, or the one who gets frustrated with synagogue politics and backs away or just doesn’t show up. I don’t know if that makes you wicked.

We are told that the wicked child is the one who separates himself or herself from the community. That has never resonated with me. Isn’t the wicked one right here in our midst, sitting right here at the seder, arguing with us?

On the Chabad website—yes, I read that too, I found an in-depth analysis of the Four Children that really resonated with me. I am excerpting it here, and it was excerpted from Yosef Marcus, who recently edited a new Haggadah:

He points out that the Haggadah mentions the wicked one right after the wise one. He teaches that the wise cannot ignore their “wicked” siblings, since we are all responsible for each other. This idea is not new. It is part of the story of Cain and Abel. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the answer was supposed to be, “Yes!”. We sing it in Psalms—“Hiney Ma Tov. How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together.”

Yet, this text adds a more spiritual dimension. “Every Jew is like a letter in a Torah scroll: If even one letter is missing, regardless of what that letter is, the holiness of all the letters is compromised. Similarly, the condition of the entire nation is dependent on each individual…the wise should not imagine themselves so far removed from the reality of the “wicked.” The “wicked”—the potential for self-destructive distractions—is the immediate neighbor of the wise.”

Ultimately, he concludes that we need to learn to embrace the “wicked child.” Perhaps because the wicked child is us.

It is like Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “Few are guilty. All are responsible.” This is not a “blame the victim” idea but the idea that we look deep within and learn. Pirke Avot teaches, “Who is wise? One who learns from all people.” For years that was my email tag line. We can learn even from the wicked. And sometimes what we learn is about ourselves. How do we conduct our seders, our lives, our communities so we don’t push people away and turn them into “the wicked child”?

This week, we experienced something as a Jewish community that was so unexpected; it is difficult to talk about. The wound is too deep. Too fresh. I think this story of the Four Children helps.

This week we learned of the arrest of a 19 year old Israeli-American teen who is alledgedly responsible for the rash of JCC bombing threats. Why would a Jewish youth do that to other Jews? What would make him so disgruntled that he would put so many Jews at risk? Some have said that he had a mental illness. Others have said that he had a brain tumor. Others have said that he didn’t get drafted into the Israeli army.

I don’t want to jump to any conclusions here. I am not sure that we should label this teen ager “wicked” or “mentally ill”. I always worry about that kind of coverage. We do not want to demonize this individual or all people with mental illness. However, he does seem to fit a pattern of children who feel isolated, who feel bullied, who want to strike back, who have removed themselves from community.

Those of us who are gathered here today are the ones who have not removed ourselves from the community. We have chosen to be here. It may even be true that we want to be here. That we derive meaning from being here. And that is a good thing. It is like the rest of our Torah portion where G-d tells Moses to tell the people of Israel—all the people of Israel—even the women—to build the mishkan, that portable, wandering sanctuary in the desert. That sacred place, where G-d and the people of Israel meet. Everyone whose heart was so moved who wanted to bring a gift, a freewill offering, brought gifts. And it was enough.

When the Israelites left Egypt, they were a mixed multitude. It is important to remember that fact. We are commanded to love the stranger amongst us. Even as our own communities continue to be threatened from within and without, we need to stand up and be counted. .

Today, we need to strive so that everyone’s gifts—material, spiritual and volunteer hours are accepted, appreciated and valued. Today we need to strive to make sure that every person feels welcome. We need to look deep within and make sure that we are caring for everyone. Perhaps then we will not have people who feel the need to separate themselves from the community.