|Most Jews have been attending a Passover Seder as long as they can remember and therefore it’s a challenge to view it anew as an adult, with an educated and mature mind. The complaint against the wicked son is that he removes himself from being a part of the Jewish people. That’s true, but it is only a basic understanding of a complex personality. Let’s take a closer look at this son and try to understand him. His question is taken directly from the Torah but is prefaced by a verse, which gives perspective of the situation.
And it shall come to pass when you enter the land that G-d will give you, as He spoke, that you shall observe this service. (Exodus 12:25-26)This verse precedes his question, what is this service to you? We now have the context of the question; it is asked after the Jewish nation enters the Land of Israel. The Jews had been sustained with countless acts of kindness needed for their survival in the dessert and had also benefitted from outright miracles when they entered the Land of Israel and were forced to defeat hostile enemies—but this son doesn’t want any part of it. Imagine a family with a rebellious teenage son. The parents had to bail him out of prison a few times, had to humble themselves by begging the school to keep him so that he wouldn’t be forced to go to a juvenile delinquency center, had paid off a debt he owed a loan shark, which saved his life. They had done so much for this child and now he was a few years older and living with them. His mother was being honored by the governor for an incident in which she, a police officer, had prevented two children from being taken hostage as a result of putting herself in the line of gunfire. The ceremony was at the state capital, a delegation of VIP’s would be there, as well as members of her immediate and extended family and close friends. This was a big day for their family; everyone was so proud of their mother and wouldn’t miss the event for anything. Imagine the son, the one who had been rescued so many times by his parents, making the following statement about the upcoming ceremony; What is this ceremony you are all going to? He knows as well as anyone else what his mother did and why so many of the family’s friends and relatives would be attending but he removes himself from them. His parents had done so much for him yet he removes himself from the family as if he has not been the recipient of years of kindness and devotion. The fact that they had fed, clothed, sheltered, and raised him would have been enough (dayeinu) for him to feel indebted and a part of the family, but he, more than anyone else, should have felt especially indebted. It was obvious that his attendance would be a small gesture compared to everything he had been the beneficiary to.
The author of this part of the Haggadah calls the son wicked because he isolates himself from his family. “What is this service of yours,” he asks. “Yours” means it’s not his. He asks his question the first year the people came into the land of Israel. He had heard from his parents and grandparents how things had been for them as slaves in Egypt and he had personally experienced being kept alive with food, drink, and protection in the desert. He had witnessed the miraculous victories the Jewish people had in conquering the Land—and, yet, after all of this he calls it your service. He thinks The Passover holiday and the mitzvot entailed in its observance are for everyone—except him. One who can’t recognize and appreciate the goodness (s)he has received cannot be called good.
This concept in so embedded in Jewish consciousness that it manifests itself in, what would seem at first glance, a peculiar way. We are commanded not to despise the Egyptians, “for you were a stranger in their land” (Deuteronomy 23:8). Why is it forbidden to despise people who persecuted us? Being as we received hospitality from them, we are obligated to recognize it. This is the opposite trait of the Egyptians, who had a King who ignored all the good done to Egypt by Joseph and his family. The entire country might have died of famine it not for Joseph’s wisdom and intervention. Even though that nation didn’t recognize the contributions made by Joseph, his family, and the rest of the Israelites, we are obligated to do our part in giving recognition to them. Even though the Egyptians “did not know Joseph,” i.e. they refused to recognize what he had done for them, we owe a debt of gratitude even to our oppressors for the small kindness they may have done for us.
It is unlikely you will find someone at your Passover Seder this year who could be deemed wicked, but the lesson shouldn’t be lost on us. Some commentators of the Haggadah point out that perhaps there are not four distinct sons, each of whom has a different temperament. Rather, each of us at different points of life embodies the traits of all the sons. When we recognize the good, we’ve received and show it, even when it’s not convenient or pleasant, then we are the “wise son.” When we are in denial of it, at that moment we have done something evil. At other times we make ourselves into simpletons (the Simple Son) when we are not willing to confront a relationship or challenge, and sometimes we cower so far away that we convince ourselves that we wouldn’t even know where to begin (the son who doesn’t even know how to ask). Whichever “son” you happen to be at the moment, you must go out of our way to make sure you aren’t the evil one, the one who denies the resources and people who got him to where he is today.
One of the main reasons people don’t want to acknowledge some good gifted to them is because they don’t want to feel indebted. Not being able to do something you know is right because of how you will feel is a form of bondage, personal bondage. This year when you are sitting at the Seder, remember that Passover is the time of freedom—all freedom; not only physical, but mental, emotional, and spiritual.
The following words are in the first paragraph of the Haggadah.This year we are here; next year may we be in the land of Israel.We left the slavery of Egypt to go into the land of freedom, Israel. If you notice you have enslaved yourself by not acknowledging all the goodness in your life, think, when saying the words above, that next year you hope to be free. This year you might say, my kids are wearing me down, pray that next year you will be able to say, thank you G-d for giving me children. This year you may complain about all the money you have had to spend on your car or the small fortune you spent repairing a leak in the water line, pray that next year you will be able to say, thank you G-d that I have the ability to own a car and have a house to live in.May this be a year of freedom for all of us. Chag Samayach/Happy Passover