By Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder
Passover is the ultimate children-centered holiday. The focus on the little ones begins in the very book that tells us about the Passover story, Exodus. Regardless of age, we are all supposed see ourselves as though we ourselves came out of Egypt. But there is a particular directive in the Torah to tell our children the story of Passover at the seder, and so for generations children have been getting special attention at the seder.
Children even have a starring role in the haggadah: the four children — the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who does not know how to ask. The text around these stock characters scripts responses to all the children, outlining for us how to do our job. And it is here that things go from great to woefully wrong.
The wise child is treated with reverence and told all the details of the rules and regulations of Passover. The wise child is the ultimate insider, entrusted with the map for finding the treasure.
The simple child may only be able to point and ask, “What is this?” But taking pride in the asking, we patiently answer the questions.
And every family has, at some stage, a member or two so small or new to this world that they do not know how to ask. So precious is their potential that we happily prompt them to ask and gladly share with them what they are capable of absorbing.
All of this is reasonable, sound parenting advice that resonates through the generations, not only at seder time, but throughout the year. Challenge those who are up to the challenge, answer the question in a way the child will understand, and teach every child the value of questions. Basic, thoughtful stuff.
But the portrayal of the wicked child and the reaction are offensively misguided. The question asked by the wicked child is not so different from that of the wise child; both ask about the meaning of the holiday for “you.” The haggadah elaborates so that we hear the difference in tone. According to the haggadah, what differentiates the wicked child is the willingness to be separate from the community.
The wicked child seeks that distance from the group at the very moment we are all meant to see ourselves as part of the contemporary collective and the timeless Jewish collective. For that sin, we are told, we should knock out the teeth of the wicked child.
To modern parents, corporal punishment is abhorrent. And it would be simple enough to dismiss the text on these grounds alone. There will be those, however, who argue that this is a metaphoric strike, meant to curb the language and words that come forth in the future. Still, even with this modification, the portrayal of the wicked child is very bad parenting advice that has real-world implications.
To begin with, many commentaries on the haggadah remind us that each one of us is all four children. At various times, around various topics or in various settings, we have all been alternatively wise, wicked, simple and clueless. My husband the physicist can do equations that few others can tackle, but when he tried to learn basic African dance in college, it was tremendously challenging.
At any given point we may ourselves, no matter our age, be the wicked child pushing against the group, pulling away. And the element of ourselves that is wicked needs to be attended to with care and compassion so that it can be brought into balance with the other elements of ourselves.
But let’s face it: There are times when kids (or adults) are just brats, difficult, defiant and surly. It may be only a piece of them, but that piece may dominate and make it difficult to see them as anything but wicked. Is there is a point where hitting them in the teeth is appropriate? No. Knocking someone in the teeth is doing literal or metaphoric lasting and irreparable damage. Taking drastic action to set someone on the proper course is at times necessary, but we need to distinguish between drastic and damaging. Fundamentally, Judaism believes in teshuvah, the possibility that any person can turn around a bad situation. Our responses have to be responses that allow for a change of heart. Not just at Passover but throughout the year, we need to be thoughtful in our responses to “wicked” behavior, creating means for going forward, changing the mind, rejoining the community. Let’s face it: Who among us has not benefited from being forgiven the lowest moments of our own behavior?
The rituals of the seder provide a counterpoint to the harshness of the text. Without administering a test to determine the kind of child any given child might be, Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews get the children involved at the beginning by assigning them the task of asking the Four Questions.
Jews from Arab lands engaged children by playing out a short script asking a “traveler” where they came from (Egypt) and where they are heading (Jerusalem). While singing “Dayenu,” Persian Jews get in on the re-enactment of ancient times by gently beating each other with scallions to commemorate the brutality of slavery. And a myriad of modern products, from plague puppets to placemats, are available to keep the children engaged.
The bigger goal of the seder is not to pigeonhole individuals, but to involve and excite all.
The haggadah text gets it wrong when it comes to labeling and reacting to wickedness. But in doing so it reminds us that it is easy for us all to judge, jump to conclusions and react in ways that may not help us achieve the family unity we desire, grow healthy children or create a community that allows for disagreement.
The Passover seder is child-centered not only because it sharpens our reflection on where we have come from, but also because it demands that we consider what kind of children, families and community we want as we go forth to the promised land.
Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder teaches classes on parenting as well as Jewish food. She works for Be’chol Lashon, an organization dedicated to celebrating the diversity of the Jewish people. She lives in Sandy Springs with her husband, David “Dr. D.” Abusch-Magder, and is mom to two teens. You can find her on Facebook and @rabbiruth on Twitter.