Saturday, April 07, 2012

The wicked child at the Passover seder

I'm sitting in my sunny Jerusalem apartment on the first day of Pesach. The neighborhood kids are playing soccer in the playground across the street. It's a quiet Shabbat in Katamon.

Last night I had a great seder with a friend of mine, A., and various family members and other friends. It was a lot of work getting ready for it, but it was definitely worth it. We had some really good discussions about deep moral issues - one of which was sparked by a question about the four types of children who are mentioned in the haggadah: the wise one (חכם), the wicked one (רשע), the simple one (תם) and the one who does not know enough to ask (שאינו יודע לשאול).

The question was - with which child do you identify? We began to talk about what is the nature of the רשע (rasha, the wicked child) - is this someone who is really wicked or is called wicked for other reasons? A.'s mother said yes, the rasha really is wicked - he separates himself from the community and scorns its values. This follows what the traditional haggadah text says of the wicked child (my translation):
The wicked child, what does he say? "What does this service mean to you?"
"To you and not to himself," because he has removed himself from the community and denied the essential truth (כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר).
You should set his teeth on edge and say to him: "Because of what YHWH did for me when I went out of Egypt." Me and not him. If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.
My friend's mother saw the wicked child as the person who has entirely removed him or herself from the community and rebelled against it.

My friend's 14 year old daughter, S., had a different perspective. She asked: Is anybody ever really wicked? What about the circumstances that might have led someone to do something evil? What if that person is poor and deprived of the good things in life? Maybe that's why someone committed a crime.

Another person, T.,  at the seder replied rather sharply to her: What about serial murderers, like the man in Toulouse who just murdered seven people, including three children? Can't you say of a person like that that he really is evil? Some people are just evil.

My friend's daughter, S. replied: But he wasn't born that way. Babies aren't born evil.

T.  said: Right, babies aren't born evil, but after a certain age, people are responsible for their own actions. They can't blame their parents or society any more when they commit wicked acts.

My friend, A., then asked: what if two people committed the identical crime, and one was from a poor family where he was hit every day and always went to bed hungry, and the other was from a well-established family where the child was very loved - should they receive the identical legal judgement?

S. said: Of course they should be treated the same way.

My friend then said: You know that the symbol for justice is a woman who has on a blindfold - so that she can't see who stands before her. The judge isn't supposed to pay attention to whether the defendant is rich or poor - the judgement should be made regardless of the condition of the defendant.

The conversation then became a bit more lighthearted - we went back to the original question of which child we identified with, and it turned out that most people, for various reasons, identified with the wise child.

I thought about this discussion in comparison with other seder discussions I've had, especially with children present (there was also another boy there of about 11, who didn't say much during this part of the discussion but was definitely following what was being said). I've been at other seders where parents of children have changed the subject abruptly because they didn't want their children to be exposed to talk about violence and murder (even though both are part of the biblical Passover story). But at this seder no one shrank from discussing the moral issues raised by violence. I can't help but think that our being in Israel helped to shape this discussion. Here, children are aware of violence from an early age, and the parents I know have not tried to shield their children from knowledge of it. They talk to their children about it and do their best to prevent them from being governed by fear - but they don't try to pretend that it doesn't exist.

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