From a talk of the Rebbe on the second night of Passover, 1965

Translator’s note: Initially, I had planned to write an essay based on this talk. I changed my mind, because I am convinced that I would be strongly criticized for taking such a radical stance. Not that I have a problem with criticism, but, as Rabbi Akiva advised his student Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “If you want to be heard, hang yourself from a big tree.” Meaning: Make your statement in the name of someone who commands greater respect than yourself.

In this instance, the Rebbe quite explicitly places the rebel—who “locks himself out of the whole ritual” of the Seder—at a higher station than the religious Jew who does everything just the way it’s supposed to be done, but finds no meaning in any of it. Yes, perhaps only higher in one regard, since action, the Rebbe insists, remains the main thing. Yet, nevertheless, in regard to the spiritual journey of the Seder, the capacity to experience real transformation and attain spiritual freedom, the rebel comes out ahead.

Perhaps more significant is the Rebbe’s prescription for this Jew. Therapists, take note: Pesach, matzah and maror are a three-step formula to effect real change in the most stubborn of clients.

Not Knowing How to Question

The simple child and the “child who does not know how to question” are two very different sorts of Jews.

The simple child is a Jew who is moved by a wondrous event, by something that has to do with G‑d and with Torah. Pharaoh was a mighty tyrant, a world leader, and so many Jews escaped his grasp. So the simple child is excited and asks, “What is this? What’s behind all of it?”

He doesn’t know— meaning, he doesn’t connect. It just doesn’t mean anything to him.

But the one who does not know how to question is not moved. It doesn’t concern him. He lacks that sensitivity, that deep sense of attachment that would get him brewing, that would make him question and react. Perhaps this is the meaning of “he doesn’t know”—in the sense of “Adam knew Eve,” meaning to make a connection and come to a deep recognition. It doesn’t mean anything to him—so he has no questions to ask.

Certainly, we are not talking about someone developmentally challenged. On the contrary, it’s quite possible that in business, his mind is all there. He’s creative and comes up with good ideas. But when it comes to Torah and mitzvahs, somehow, suddenly there are no problems to solve. Why? Because he’s missing the spirit of life that gives a person the sensitivity that drives him to question.

When it comes to his daily conduct, he’s actually quite religious—even very careful about Torah and mitzvahs. And he’s ready to provide justification for his failure to ask questions: “That’s how G‑d works. That’s why He’s called the Almighty. So what’s there to question?” he says.

From within, however, he is a person who doesn’t know how to question. Torah and mitzvahs don’t move him—and therefore they elicit no questions. He may even fulfill mitzvahs to their optimum—but not out of an inner commitment, or because it really means so much to him. It’s just that this is his habit, his lifestyle. He had religious parents, learned in a religious yeshivah, and so on.

A religious Jew, he conducts the entire Seder with all the extras—but he’s in a dream

As he relates to other mitzvahs, so does he relate to the Passover Seder: He eats matzah, he eats the bitter herb, he conducts the entire Seder with all the customs—even with all the extras, beautifully—and it doesn’t touch him. He comes to the Seder in a dream—dreaming about his income, his business, about other similar matters—and he leaves the Seder in the same dream. When there’s no spirit of life, then everything is fine—there’s nothing missing that he has to question.

The jaded religious Jew versus the vociferous rebel

This explains why the one who does not know how to ask is situated at the very end of the four children—even after the wicked one. Seemingly, it’s astonishing: Here you have a person who keeps Torah and mitzvahs. How does he deserve to be seated after the wicked child?

But now we can understand: With the wicked child, the world of Torah does move him. That’s why he comes to the Seder, asks the questions, hears the answer—and all the rest that goes along with that. True, his agenda in coming and going through the service is a wicked one—just so that he can say, “What is the point of all this service to you?”—and with the negative intonation of “you—not me,” by which he locks himself out of the entire ritual. Nevertheless, the very fact that he comes and he argues, that itself indicates that it matters to him. He asks because it bothers him—his desires, his understanding and his feelings. When he asks, he’s immersed in the question. And since he argues, it’s possible that eventually someone could win him over.

The wicked child asks and is immersed in the question.

That’s where you see how he is higher than the one who does not know how to ask. For the unquestioning child, everything is fine and dandy. How could that be? He is an accomplished person, with a good understanding and acumen in the financial matters in which he is fully immersed! But the answer is that at the Seder he is not really there—not his mind, not his emotions, not his vitality. He says, “That’s what it says in Torah—so let it be that way. What do I care?”

Such a person is difficult to turn around. He is truly a Torah-and-mitzvahs Jew in actual deed—and actual deed is the main thing. But in intellect, emotions, and in what moves him in this world, there he stands even behind the wicked child.

Simplicity versus sophistication

To the question of the simple child, “What is this?” we answer:

For with a strong hand G‑d took us out of Egypt.

To the one that does not know how to ask, we answer:

It was for this that G‑d did all that for me when I left Egypt.

Reading both of these verses—these two answers to two different sorts of people—we can see that they express two very different, indeed diametrically opposed, modalities.

Look carefully: When answering the simple child, we say clearly that it was the all-powerful G‑d who took us out from there. Furthermore, to do so, G‑d had to use a “strong hand.” But when we express this to the one who does not know how to ask, we say simply, “. . . when I left Egypt.” We talk to him as though it were our own departure from Egypt, as though we did it all on our own.

The responses seem to be reversed. If we assume that the simple child has greater understanding than the one who doesn’t know how to ask—which their titles seem to clearly imply—then the second answer, “It was for this . . .” seems a more appropriate response for him. It’s a response that contains some sort of reasoning, a motive for the Exodus—that it was because of something.

If the one who does not know how to ask has no clue about the whole story, if it’s a whole new world for him, it would make more sense to tell him about the miraculous events. That’s the meaning of “a strong hand”—which is in the verse that we tell to the simple child.

The simple child feels the wonder, is moved and asks, “What is this?”

But according to how we’ve explained these two above, everything makes sense. The simple child feels the wonder of the exodus from Egypt. He’s moved and he asks, “What is this? What is this amazing miracle that happened? Show me the way to achieve the wonder of this exodus from Egypt!”

So, the Haggadah says, you must show him the way of the Exodus. You must tell him how a person can achieve such a thing, and how he too can leave his personal Egypt. You must tell him it takes “a strong hand”—which means the right hand, which represents the victory of kindness and compassion over strict judgment (the left hand). Because, by the strict letter of the law, our ancestors were not yet entitled to leave Egypt. G‑d had told Abraham that they would be there for 400 years. But the Almighty did not reckon strictly by the letter of the law, and “calculated the end”—recalculating and transforming the 400 years into only 210.

“And you, too,” we tell this child, “you must do the same, with your strong right hand. You, too, can experience your own exodus from your own Egypt. But to do so, you need to tear down your own self-judgments, your barriers and limitations, your limited estimation of what you can achieve—and then G‑d will take you, as well, out of Egypt.”

Such a response, however, is appropriate only to someone who is ready to hear about an exodus from a personal Egypt. He has a grasp of the idea, and actually wants to get out of his Egypt—he just doesn’t know how, and asks, “What is this?”

But when it comes to one who does not know how to ask, nothing bothers him. He’s quite satisfied with his situation. Speaking with him about the “how” of a personal exodus would be premature. To tell him that, ultimately, your own abilities alone are not going to be enough for this, that it must be G‑d who will take you out of your Egypt, and that even He will require a “strong hand”—he’s not ready for any of that yet.

With him, we have to first explain the basic concept of leaving Egypt—the “when I left Egypt.” We can’t yet talk about an exodus that comes from above. We first have to demonstrate to him that there is such a thing, that a person can and must work on himself, that he has to do something to get out of his Egypt.

Getting him out of Egypt

How do we inspire this child to leave his Egypt? We spell it out: “Because of this.”

“This” refers to three things: the Passover lamb, the matzah and the bitter herbs. Each has a spiritual meaning:

How do we inspire this child? With a simple formula: Pesach, matzah, maror.

The Passover lamb was to be eaten at the end of the meal, when everyone was already satisfied and filled with joy. It is a symbol of taking the high road, the spiritual greatness all of us can achieve.

Matzah expresses faith and taking on the yoke of heaven—transcending the tight framework of intellect alone.

The bitter herbs express the deep bitterness that comes about when contemplating one’s own enslavement of the spirit—knowing that he’s not where he could be, and feeling the bonds that tie him down. And that itself awakens great compassion from above.

So, for this one who does not know how to ask, “you must open up for him.” You have to open the way for him to leave his Egypt. First you must tell him that there is such a thing as the high road, a path that knows no limits. Then tell him that he has within him a strong faith that transcends the boundaries of plain intellect. And both of these will bring him to a bitterness—he begins to feel his spiritual bondage, and how he must escape the bounds of his own mind and emotions. He becomes torn with an inner bitterness over his own spiritual situation—and with that, he awakens divine compassion.

And then, “for the sake of this—G‑d was there for me.” The help he needs comes to him from above, so that he can actually leave his Egypt and come to the true heights of Passover and matzah.