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The Wicked Child

The Wicked Child


The wicked child, what does he say? “What’s up with all this stuff you guys do?” He says “you,” excluding himself. Since he has excluded himself from the whole, he has denied the main point. So you too should dull his teeth, saying, “With a strong hand G‑d took me out of Egypt.” Emphasize me. For if he had been there, he would not have been redeemed. (From the Passover Hagadah’s description of “The Four Sons”)

”Hi, Schwartz?”

”Oh, hi, Freeman. Wassup?”

Jack Schwartz is bad. He is a wicked child. Not as in “there’s something bad about that child.” As in core-of-evil bad.

Just the man I needed at this point.

”Schwartz, you’re a wicked child and I need a wicked child for my seder. Think you can make it?”

I needed him to say yes. You don’t understand: Just as the wise child represents the epitome of wisdom and the simple child the ultimate of simplicity, so Jack Schwartz is the paradigm of bad. Perfect.

”I’d love to, Freeman, but I’m afraid I’m already booked.”

”Where? At the night club? Look, Schwartz, you may be wicked, but we’re talking about the night of Passover here!”

”I know that, Freeman, but every year I’m expected at my parent’s seder.”

”You gotta be kidding. Okay, look, when you’re done, just pop in over here. I mean, you prob’ly just show up over there and get out as quick as you can, being wicked and all.”

”No, not at all. I sit there the whole night, right next to my wise-child brother and my simple-child brother…”

”And you make trouble, right?”

”Actually, I participate.”

”You do? Like what?”

”Like I ask questions. Good questions. I learn a lot.”

”You ask questions? You mean, you’re really interested in the seder?”

”Sure. I find the seder very interesting.”

”Hold on, this is Jack, right? Jack Schwartz? The wicked child guy?”

”Well, they call me that, but I’m not sure why. I mean, I’m fascinated by all things Jewish.”

”You are?”

”Especially the Passover Seder, which is a rich historical repository of many rituals and customs, each with its own story and cultural significance. From an anthropological point of view, it makes a great study. And from a psychological or sociological standpoint…”

”Hold it, Schwartz! That’s not what the seder is supposed to be about! The seder is a personal experience! You’re supposed to get carried away by the experience of it all, the multisensory spill-the-wine-on-your-silk-tie and swallow down the matzah without embarrassing yourself in front of the relatives experience. You are supposed to be part of it—not coldly observe from the outside like some anthropologist studying the Wakawalla tribal matzah feast! It’s about being part of the tribe and experiencing that!”

”Experiential? That’s an interesting insight. I see a content versus process issue, á la Marshall McLuhan.”

”Schwartz, you’re anthropologizing again. Get past the mind games and let’s talk about the ‘you’ in the seder.”

”The you in the seder. I like that. Sounds almost post-modern.”

”Maybe it’s chassidic. Chassidics were post-modern before modern was invented.”

”Oh yes. My wise-child brother is chassidic. He discusses many abstract chassidic concepts that fascinate me from a philosophical/historical perspective. I wonder about the relationship of chassidism to the romantic movement that was sweeping Europe at the time…”

”Schwartz, you are hopeless!”

Nu, I guess that’s why they call me the wicked child.”

That’s what gets me about Jack Schwartz. Inviting him to your seder is like inviting the fire station chief to a fireworks party. Or bringing a neat freak on a camping trip. The atmosphere could be as saturated with magic as it is with the vapor of the chicken soup, and just one of Schwartz’ comments will freeze it to liquid nitrogen in an instant. The table could be as flowing with yummy conversation as it is with the kids’ grape juice, morsels of wisdom scattered about like the crumbs of matzah—but two words from Schwartz and the place is reeking of formaldehyde.

What gets me more about Jack Schwartz is that he ain’t stupid. He has brains, but all he does with them is tickle his own brains with his own brains. He has brains, but all he does with them is tickle his own brains with his own brains. Brains are meant to be part of a human body and human bodies are all about emotions, experience and life. But Schwartz’ brain stands outside life peering in, like a surgeon examining a cadaver.

Look, it’s one thing if you never get to a seder—what you don’t know can’t move you. But this guy turns up year after year as though he were an embedded journalist. At least if he would yell and scream, rebel, act out and get people upset—at least then we would know that he cares. But no, he remains cold and perfectly satisfied with everything. He feels it has nothing to do with him, it’s just a cultural curiosity, so why get emotional?

That’s evil. Darkness in its essential form. Not the type of darkness that fights against light—because then, at least we would know there’s some life inside—otherwise why the fight? No, this is darkness that can sit comfortably at the same table as bright, stunning light, stare it in the face and say “that’s interesting” without budging a nano-lumen from its darknessness. Relentless, unregenerate, essence-of-death, dark badness.

Which is just what the Hagadah says, that there’s four kids and one of them is wicked because he denies the basis of the whole thing. How? By proclaiming his atheism? By declaring the seder a worthless bother? By insulting his mother’s food? No, just by dulling the teeth of the seder. By ripping the experience out of it and making it into an academic exercise. By seeing himself out of the picture instead of inside it.

Which pulls the Passover table out from under the tablecloth. Because if there’s no one inside the picture, then there’s no Jewish People. And if there’s no Jewish People, then the Exodus might as well have never happened and Passover isn’t happening now and the matzah is not matzah, just some over-priced flat bread that’s not even lo-cal and there’s no point in making a seder or spilling wine on your silk tie in front of your in-laws because it’s all dead history.

So we are supposed to blunt his teeth back, saying:

You’re stuck in Egypt! If you can’t experience being part of the people, part of the story, part of life, then you can’t experience liberation. A deadbeat like you would have stayed behind in Egypt, saying “Interesting people, ethnologically speaking, these Jews. Me, I’m just another Egyptian who happens to be of Hebraic lineage.”

But if there is a Jewish People, then we are a living miracle and we are celebrating the here and now, reliving the Exodus just by the fact that we are sitting together and making the story real once again. Us, but not you. So there.

And then, maybe we could console ourselves. “Three out of four,” we could say, “ain’t so bad after all.”

But we can’t.

You see, what really bugs me the most is that Jack Schwartz is my friend. From childhood. There’s not many of us that don’t bring their own Jack Schwartz to the seder He’s a part of me. In fact, he’s a part of all of us. There’s not many of us that don’t bring their own Jack Schwartz to the seder with them. So if Schwartz is hopeless, what’s with the rest of us?

The Hagadah seems pretty unforgiving with this child. At least, that’s the way we understood the Hagadah for a couple of thousand years. Then along came the Rebbe and turned the whole thing upside down:

The Torah speaks of four children. One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one doesn’t know how to ask. What do they all have in common? One. As in, Hear O Israel, G‑d is your G‑d, G‑d is One.

Tell him: If you had have been there,” he read the words, “then you would not have been redeemed. There but not here. There means the proto-Torah era. But here and now, since the Torah is given and all of us became a single whole, this time around no one will be left behind. Tell him that regardless of anything he will say or think, he is part of us and we are part of him and we are all in this together.

The ultimate redemption of the world, the Rebbe taught, is not when it is filled with light. It is when the darkness itself will shine. When cold, academic intellect itself will declare, “There is nothing else but the Infinite Light. Nothing outside of it. Not even us.” Not even Jack Schwartz. Not even the Jack Schwartz embedded so deep within the egos of each one of us.

Maybe that’s what Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi meant when he said that when the moshiach comes, his warmth will melt the Arctic sea. My polar bear friends tell me it’s already begun.

Hold on a sec. “Schwartz? Yeah, it’s me again. Hey, there’s two nights to the seder…”

From Heaven Exposed by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. For bio, info and more articles by this author, click here. To order Tzvi's books, click here.
Artwork by David Brook. David lives in Sydney, Australia, and has been selling his art since he was in high school. He is currently painting and doing web illustrations.
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Lamont Myers Hollywood Fl. January 14, 2016

Wicked son This beautiful. World changing! Reply

suzy Manhattan April 1, 2015

Seder over and over It reminds me of the definition of insanity doing the same over and over hoping for a different outcome. Oy Vey! Reply

Jerry Snyder Silver Spring, MD via February 18, 2013

Wicked Son The wicked son is not evil .After all, he is present and he is part of the Jewish folk .Maybe he is, at heart, a secular Jewish humanist (whatever the reason)., On the face of it he's not a happy camper. We should not assume we understand his heart and mind. There is bit of him in all of us. He is not the enemy. He is a test of our faith in the ultimate goodness of all of G-d's creation. But in the here and now, we should commit to getting to know our "brothers" much better. Reply

Anonymous Valley Village, CA April 14, 2011

The Wicked Child I am surprised to read your comment, "three out of four ain't so bad after all, " in the above piece. We shouldn't be writing these souls off as lost and gone. I read a piece yesterday on the Chabad site about the broken Matza of Yachatz representing Israel - the smaller group who observe mitzvot are represented by the piece on the table, and the millions of souls 'lost' out in the diaspora - many not even knowing they're Jewish - are represented by the bigger piece set aside for Afikoman. The gist was that Mashiach can't come till all are united as one. I am often puzzled when I hear people and leaders in the orthodox communities speak derisively about this remnant of our people. They are still a part of Am Yisrael, and I think we should be reaching out to do kiruv, especially any ba'aley t'shuva who often have many nieces and nephews with very little connection to yidishkeit. You can't ignore the stragglers and then tell yourself you are One, complete, and whole. Reply

Chloe Shapero April 12, 2011

Comedy is serious business Going on 21 years and respecting the Jack Schwartz more than ever. So far from my time frame of being a benoni. Grateful for good writing and a way in for the part of us that needs a way in to bring the others of us and ours in. Thank you so much for what you wrote. And thank you for continuing to address the guts and stuff of our unbelievable great luck. Reply

Anonymous April 12, 2011

The wicked child What a pity, I wanted to be a part of you yal, but have not been accepted. Should I feel like the wicked child? My determination is that I will not give up until my roots spring up as I was called from Above. Hope ya all have a blessed Pesach with your family and friends. I shall be blessed alone at home, with Elijah. I do not have a silver cup but a glass one, and some Jewish grape juice. Shalom. Reply

Anonymous norman, ok April 12, 2011

two uses of the intellect Would it help this discussion to suggest that there are two uses of intellect: for power over, and for power to. The wise son's question uses intellect and reason to acquire knowlege that will give him the power to do Jewish things with more understanding and enjoyment. The wicked son as R. Freeman describes him is using his intellect (and historical knowledge) to take power over the event and over others at the table. Power over is a form of control, and an affirmation of superiority and pride, as well as of distance.

R. Freeman's article was trying to give us power to by explaining that the seder is something to be experienced, and that we're missing the core of it if we don't know that. He avoided power over by saying that Schwartz (however spelled) is part of him and of each of us. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY April 11, 2011

Thank You Thank you so much for this very inspiring teaching. I needed this soooo much.
May Hashem bless you with revealed good. May you continue your wonderful teachings to all of Klal Ysiroel. Reply

dov ny March 24, 2010

re shallow note that the 1st son is not good or righteous but wise.

and see pierke avot 'if there is no fear of G-d there is no wisdom, if there is no wisdom there is no fear...' Reply

Anonymous April 8, 2009

The wicked son R. Freeman is a true master. Master writer, philosopher, scientist, and above all, master Jew.
I was cold as a fish going into this Pesach. Just was. By Divine Providence, I came across this article and suddenly I found myself crying.
It was R. Freeman´s book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth that not only changed my life but also got me close to Chabad.
Sorry to make this too personal.
I just felt compelled to share with you, R. Freeman, the immense gratitude someone in another part of the world and probably light-years away in upbringing is moved by your words and outlook. This is my first-ever comment on although I´m a regular reader.
This article (BTW, Is Jack Schwartz Amalek?) and My Plastic Pharaoh (hope is still posted) are essential before-Pesach reading. Year after year.
May G-d bless you and your family. Reply

Ben April 7, 2009

Disturbing Interpretation In the author's "conversation" with Jack, he tells him that there is a correct way to experience the Seder, and an incorrect way. I find this very disturbing. Many Jews do not feel spiritually connected to the characters in the passover story, and instead find their connection to Judaism to be more intellectual. Is this wicked? I hope not. To me, insisting that there is a correct way to relate to an organized religion is far more evil than merely viewing the Seder from an emotionally removed place.

Additionally, why does the wicked child feel disconnected from the Jewish people. Is he gay, and told that his sexual orientation is unacceptable? Does he wish to intermarry, and is forbidden to ensure his children will be raised Jewish?

I bring up these points, not to be facetious, but instead to argue that there are many legitimate reasons one could feel removed from the Jewish people that are far from wicked. Reply

Craig Hamilton Sandwich, MA August 6, 2008

The Wicked Son The wicked son comes to the Passover table and welcomes himself. The wicked son likes arrangements, especially arrangements that are disturbing. Wickedness gives balance to craftiness, immaturity, and simplicity, as the crafty son in all his complexity is likely to have the simple son left out or at least intimidated, so does wickedness put off the crafty son while he encourages immaturity and comforts simplicity. Reply

askthephilosopher Thornhill, Canada April 16, 2008

Wicked Child The detached intellectual who always exists at the meta-level, observing, but never fully participating, is corrosive even of intellect and rationality. However, the intellectual who chooses intellect, thinking, and rationality is fully committed to reason and thought. This person is neither wicked nor wise. This person recognizes that everything is open to question and examination except questioning and examining. So, when at the seder table this person may sound like the wicked child, but with one difference: this person of intellect and self-examination, does not spare herself from the examination. She asks: why do I do sit at this table? and, why do we do what we do? The wicked child not only excludes himself from the seder as a committed participant but also excludes himself from himself as committed to thinking and questioning. Reply

Paul Goodman April 13, 2008

Re: Shallow Hey, nothing wrong with philosophy and intellect. This is Chabad--which translates as "wisdom, understanding and knowiedge." The issue is with the cold, outside observer approach. If you want to understand something and really know it, experience it from within.

Actually, I think it was Fritz Perls who said, "Intellect is the concubine of intelligence." Well, he used a different word, but... Reply

Anonymous USA April 11, 2008

Shallow Characterizing interest in intellect and philosophy as "evil" is an easy and faulty way to dismiss a much more complex approach to Judaism. Seriously, this story is offensive. I connect a great deal to Judaism, and I find that looking at it with a sociological and historical lense often enriches my understanding of it. Just as everyone is "wired" differently, individuals need to find their own path in interacting with a seder. For some it is unbridled emotion, and for others it is a lengthy process of dissecting the traditions and trying to connect the dots between what happens in our homes every year to the traditions of Jews throughout the centuries. Perhaps this year you should reframe how you see "Jack;" rather than and "evil" observer, he is a Jew trying to figure out his religion the only way he knows how. Reply

Randy H. Farb Flint, MI April 9, 2008

Wicked Child Actually, I feel that there are two interpretations of who is the wicked child. The first is a natural offshoot of the first generation being a wise guy about Judaism. A wise guy's kid is naturally going to turn wicked, and his son will be the one who asks "What is this?"

A second interpretation is that the wicked child is Rabbi Eliezer ben Abbuye, who represents the Drash in Pardes. Because he could not reconcile conflicting commandments, he became Drash, leading to heresy. Reply

rachael melbourne, australia April 9, 2008

beautiful beautiful article.
thank you. Reply

Tzvi Freeman (author) April 9, 2008

Re: YUP If you were insulted, then you are definitely NOT the Jack Schwartz in the article. He would just find the it interesting and comment on the prose.

Besides, he spells his last name differently than yours. Reply

Jack Shwartz April 9, 2008

YUP You did it! my name is Jacob (Ya'akov) Shwartz, and I am insulted! Reply

Matthew Clark St. Paul, MN/USA April 9, 2008

The Wicked Child A wonderful article that makes me want to learn more about a man who could see and illuminate the essential connection between the wise, the wicked, the simple, and those unable to ask.
Thank you for giving me something new and so good to bring to my sedar table this year. Reply

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