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At Passover, More to Say About the ‘Wicked’ and the ‘Wise’

At Passover, More to Say About the ‘Wicked’ and the ‘Wise’

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Meet the four sons: the wise son, the wicked one, the simple son and the son who does not know how to ask. As one of the most engaging sections of the Passover Haggadah, the four sons represent the kaleidoscope of perspectives we all bring to the table.

Choosing who sits next to whom at that table is notThe four sons represent the kaleidoscope of perspectives we all bring to the table an easy task. There’s the varied personalities, diverging viewpoints and those always “interesting” family dynamics.

At the four sons’ Seder table, the wise son sits next to wicked.

On the face of it, it’s a strange choice. You would think that the simple son—or the one who does not know to ask—might sit next to the wise one. After all, though lacking in sophistication and cleverness, there appears to be a sincere interest in following the G‑dly path in those brothers.

This is in contrast to the wicked son, who demonstrates a mocking contempt for the Torah. That son does not want to involve himself in Divine endeavors. He does not want to be part of communal life. He is cynical.

Despite this, the placement of the wicked son next to the wise is intentional. No son is truly “wicked.” Yes, his behavior may be misplaced, even egregious. But his essence, his soul, is still G‑dly. The evil son sits next to the wise one because he is just one step away from him.

I think that’s worth repeating. The wicked son sits next to the wise son because he has more in common with him than not. The wicked son has the power to become just as erudite, just as “good” and just as content as the wise son, if he so chooses.

Can the wise son learn from his wicked brother sitting at his side? You bet!

For the wise son, the wicked son is a continual reminder that he must perpetually develop himself. There is no place for showmanship and self-aggrandizement in the life of the wise one. Why? Because one slip, one wrong move, could reorient his position as the “wicked” one.

Understanding the “wicked” and the “wise” has powerful consequences for our own lives.

Look to your side. Who is placed next to you at the Seder table, at the business meeting, at the restaurant, at school? Perhaps, if you are “wise,” yourThere is no place for showmanship neighbor is a bit edgy, somewhat hardened by a challenged life. He may feel alienated, out of sorts with society. Maybe he has pushed the ethical boundaries. Maybe he has cheated on his taxes, followed his heart into an illicit relationship. Maybe he has convinced himself that plagiarizing is not the worst sin in the world.

It’s so easy to push an envelope, and if not for vigilance and awareness, it’s even easier to fall prey to “minor” indiscretions—and even major ones. If you’re wise, you realize that you could just have easily make the wrong choices. You could have chosen the wrong fork in the road and dabbled in that which you have no business dabbling. Knowing that you, too, could become “wicked” is a humbling reality.

If you are “wicked,” you may encounter someone of strong character at your side. Perhaps they are able to apply their wisdom to help the world. Maybe they are responsible, and live lives of consequence and compassion. You could live that life, if you so choose.

But you may have to overhaul some entrenched life patterns. You may have to come to grips with the darker side of your personality. You may have to accept, let go and even surrender. But you have as much potential as your brother. You are one step away from being wise.

At the Seder table and beyond, the “wise” have a responsibility for those placed next to them. They have the ability to guide the “wicked” and help redress theirThe “wise” have a responsibility to those placed next to them ways. They have the know-how to demonstrate a different model of behavior. Fostering brotherhood, they can encourage others to be less estranged and alone. Alternatively, the wicked son needs to recognize who sits next to him. Through power of example, the wicked son is reminded of the power of change.

With effort, we have the potential to become wicked or wise. As sons—and daughters—we are just one step from one another. Turning to our side, we become one on Seder night.

(Adapted from the Lubavicher Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, Chag HaPesach, p. 247ff.)

Karen Wolfers-Rapaport is a psychotherapist specializing in Narrative Therapy. She holds a BA from UCLA, and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Boston College. She received her training from Tufts University. In addition to her therapeutic work and freelance writing, Karen works with families from Israel’s Prime Minister’s office and Ministry of Defense, teaching them English in preparation for their diplomatic posts abroad. A proud mother, she is blessed to live in Israel.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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jenny shain RBS April 20, 2017

Lovely article and thought provoking, how the wise and wicked son are really not so far from each other!! We have choice as to how to direct our questions and answers. Reply

steve abraham NYC April 20, 2017
in response to jenny shain:

Do we have any choice as "how to think?" Does anyone who has a different opinion get labeled as a wicked son? Is "different" equal to wicked, and thereby bad or evil? If someone says, I do not agree with your interpretation, is that person wicked? Are you the wise one, only because you have learned to give the correct answers, the accepted ones, whether you believe it is so or not? My father survived the holocaust, and remained Shomer Shabbos, but his brother said no, he could not accept that God allowed this to happen. Is one wise and the other wicked? Is it only the holy one who is wise? Reply

chaim NYC April 6, 2017

It seems there is no real absolute "wicked" son, for if there was, how could the wise son influence the wicked one? If this is the case, then where do you delineate when one son becomes the "wicked" one? What does "wicked" mean? Is it through actions and deeds, or is it just thoughts, or is it a combination of bad thoughts and actions that make a son wicked? Could it be simply being disrespectful that causes the label "wicked"? Disrespectful to the parent, or to Judaism? What about "context:? What if the son was abused? Or is this a simple "parable", or as one writer said, "an analogy to make a point but no realism"? Reply

steve abraham NYC April 5, 2017

"Wicked" is a relative term. Perhaps some of the ideas of the wicked son will change the ideas of the wise son? What if the wicked son asked a question like, "can we do a study on prayer, 100 who pray for something and 100 who do not, and see if there is any difference in the outcomes, and if there is none, then we stop praying?" This is a wicked thought from one perspective, but from another, it is a reasonable one, as this is what we do in medicine. So, in this case, we would hope the so called wicked ideas transfer to the so called wise one. The problem here is "absolute thinking" and "using analogy instead of direct answers. People who thing should be given respectful, intelligent answers, not analogies that are twisted to show only your point of view. Is a doctor who saves a life, but is not kosher wicked? Reply

K. Toronto April 6, 2017
in response to steve abraham:

Thank you Steve.


re: the wise have a responsibility ... humility is a good point of 'ear mark; here. A responsibility to illuminate, but also a responsibility to listen and humble yourself, to listen to whatever, the 'wicked' have to say ... What are the real questions that young man/woman, or surgeon, really asking ? ...Yes, there should be some room given to 'relativism'. Reply

Sean Rice Jamaica Plain April 7, 2017
in response to steve abraham:

"wicked" is a very unkind word, but I believe it refers to a person who does not exactly obey the parents? Reply

jim dallas April 3, 2017

great artist, great writer, fine psychological advice and wonderings....i didn't wander even once, saw visions of my realities all the way thru...thanks to both experts! Reply

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