The Wicked Son, what does he say? “Why do you guys do all these rituals?”

He says “you guys,” as though he’s not a part of this. By excluding himself from the rest of us, he’s washing away the whole foundation.

—The Passover Haggadah

Here’s the most basic question about the Wicked Son: What is he doing at the Passover Seder?

I don’t just mean, “Why did he come?” He didn’t just come. He got himself written into the text of the Haggadah. What’s he doing there?

Moses said, “And you will tell your children on that night…” What do we tell them? The story of the Exodus.

We get them to ask questions, provide the backgroundThat such damnations are unlikely to charm the young man’s heart is a no-brainer. to our descent to Egypt, elaborate on our oppression there, describe the wonders and miracles of the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Red Sea, and express gratitude to G‑d for liberating us, choosing us at Sinai, and bringing us to the Promised Land.

So here we are, on this precious night when every moment counts and every word is counted, hurling abuse upon this chilled-out kid who can’t relate to the whole thing. “You, too, should blunt his teeth,” the Haggadah enjoins us. “Tell him, ‘If you had been there, heh! You would never have been redeemed!’”

That such damnations are unlikely to charm the young man’s heart is a no-brainer. But lousy pedagogy aside, this is the opposite of what we are supposed to be doing tonight. We want to talk about leaving Egypt—this conversation is about not leaving Egypt. Wrong time, wrong place.

Die Frankfurter Pessach Haggadah
Die Frankfurter Pessach Haggadah

Pulling Out the Rug From Under the Seder Table

Worse: The Haggadah itself tells us that the wicked son undermines the very basis of tonight’s agenda: “By excluding himself from the rest of us, he’s washing away the whole foundation.”

What’s that foundation? HeFor goodness sake, he’s sitting there at the Seder, engaged in what’s going on! didn’t deny that G‑d exists. He didn’t deny that we left Egypt (if he did, what would be the point of telling him that if he were there, he would not be redeemed). For goodness sake, he’s sitting there at the Seder, engaged in what’s going on!

Yes, he’s engaged in the Seder, but he has disengaged from the story. His question is actually a statement. He needs to make the point that he’s happy to be a part of the meal, but he’s happier to have no part in the Haggadah.

Which implies that to him, Judaism is nothing more than a club that you can join or leave. Meaning, there really is no integral continuity to the Jewish people. It’s all optional, he says, “And I choose to opt out.”

If there’s no Jewish people, what’s the point of the Seder? Why are we here on this night? So some people left Egypt 3,330 years ago. If we are not a people, what’s that got to do with us?

So why bring him up? There are three matzahs, let there be three sons.

The Birds Head Haggada of the Bezalel National Art Museum in Jerusalem
The Birds Head Haggada of the Bezalel National Art Museum in Jerusalem

Don’t Believe a Word He Says

Pore through the commentaries and you’ll find nothing but deprecation and calumnity poured upon this kid. He epitomizes all that is bad, every attitude that we reject, indeed, the antithesis of the Seder. Which just makes our question even stronger.

Until you get to one redeeming commentary—that of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.1 He asks precisely the question I’ve just asked (quite a coincidence).2 And, with this question, he redeems the wicked son.

From the earliest years of his leadership, the Rebbe insisted that we’re reading the Haggadah all wrong. Since we’re reading it wrong, we’re dealing with our fellow Jews unfairly. That’s got to change.

How do you read it right? It’s all a matter of emphasis. Try this: “If you had been there, you would not have been redeemed.”

Read Read the right way, you can see it’s a starting point for a very productive conversation.that way, you can see it’s a starting point for a very productive conversation.

Best case scenario, the kid will respond, “No way! I sure would have been redeemed.” Then you’ve nabbed him.

But if he’s super-chilled, you might get, “What do you mean by there?”

To which you will answer, “There, in Egypt.”

“And here, now?” he will ask.

“Here, now, of course you will be redeemed.”

“What’s the difference there or here, then or now?” he will demand. “I’m not part of this whole thing. I don’t even consider myself Jewish. I’m just here to make you happy. But Judaism is a religion and I have no religion. So why does your religion consider me redeemable?”

“Because we don’t believe a thing you just said.”

“Why not?”

“If you had said it back in Egypt, we would have believed you. But now, after we were liberated from there and chosen at Sinai, now we know you are lying through your teeth…”

”Not true!”

”… even if you don’t yet know it yourself. Really, you feel yourself as much a part of this people as any of us. And so, when we leave this exile, and the whole world will become the place it is meant to be, you will come along with us to celebrate in the Promised Land.”

The Barcelona Haggadah
The Barcelona Haggadah

Force Him Until He Says He Wants To

I’m not kidding. That’s how the Rebbe learns it. The Rebbe even cites a halachah to prove his point—arguably the halachah most often quoted by the Rebbe throughout all his talks.

Here’s how it goes: A wife takes her husband to a rabbinic tribunal, demanding a divorce. The tribunal finds she has firm ground for her demands. Unable to mend the situation, they order the man to provide his wife a bill of divorce. He refuses.

What do we do? If we write the divorce for him, they are still married. If we throw him in the slammer and tell him he’ll rot there until he gives his wife a divorce, so maybe he’ll say, “Okay, I’ll give it to her.”

But that’s not good enough. We have a basic principle throughout halachah that a forced transaction is not a transaction. If a person is forced to sell his house or buy some goods, and he can demonstrate that in court, we believe him and the deal is null.

Same with a divorce. It’s a transaction. He has to say, “I want to give her a divorce.”

So that’s what we would do—when rabbinic tribunals had the authority (they generally do not nowadays). “We force him,” the halachah instructs us, “until he says, ‘I want to.’”3

Hold on. So he said “I want to.” Of course he said “I want to.” He doesn’t want to rot away in a smelly cell. But does he really want to? And if he doesn’t want, what use is this bill of divorce?

Maimonides, the great codifier of Jewish law, explains in his code: True, with a standard transaction, force will not help. But if the Torah says a Jew must do something, force can help. Why?

Because There’s just something nasty inside him that’s gotten the better of him, making him say what he says.when he says, “I don’t want to,” he doesn’t mean it.

There’s something nasty inside him that’s gotten the better of him, making him say what he says. But really, every Jew wants to do whatever the Torah tells a Jew to do, and to stay far from anything the Torah says not to do.

So we just give him a little treatment that will weaken that nasty germ inside. We break the outer shell that is not allowing the light of the true Jew to escape. Then, once the truth passes his lips, we go ahead and write the bill of divorce.4

Narkiss, Bezalel. The Golden Haggadah
Narkiss, Bezalel. The Golden Haggadah

The Faithful Atheist

Why am I bringing this up here? Because that’s the case with the Wicked Son. He doesn’t want to be a wicked son. He doesn’t want to be separated from us. He doesn’t mean a word he says.

Like the story of the Jewish parents who sent their boy to a Catholic private school—just because it was the best in town. December came around and, much to his parents’ annoyance, the boy couldn’t stop it with the carols.

Finally, his father grabbed him and blurted out, “Listen, kid! There’s only one G‑d and we don’t believe in Him!”

There you have it—the not-so-subliminal, intransigent faith of a Jewish atheist.

Indeed, inIn that voice of denial, as he coldly repudiates any attachment to his people, we can hear an inner faith so essential to his very core-being that the mightiest hurricane could never wash it away. that voice of denial, as he coldly repudiates any attachment to his people, ridicules our practices, and vehemently condemns our insistence on chosenness—in that voice itself, we can hear an inner faith so deep-seated, so essential to his very core-being, that the mightiest hurricane could never wash it away.

That’s why, as with the bill of divorce, it’s not a matter of winning arguments to convince anyone of anything. What’s needed is only to crack that outer shell, allow in some oxygen, and let the flames burst out.

Often that means taking him past his comfort zone—which is what the Haggadah means by “blunting his teeth.” You don’t have to break anything to get there. There are less hazardous and more promising means. Get him to eat a shmurah matzah. To do any mitzvah. He’ll start questioning his assumptions, attempting to justify what he just did.

The Floersheim Haggadah
The Floersheim Haggadah

What Happened to Make Us This Way?

Among those who left Egypt were all sorts of kvetches and fickle-faith slackers. Some even brought along a few standard Egyptian idols—just in case.

Yet many Midrashim describe large numbers of descendants of Jacob who stayed behind.5 What was different about them?

They were like the Wicked Child. They said, “We are not the Children of Israel. We are Egyptians. This is our home. We’re just not part of the destiny of which Moses speaks.”

They stayed behind. But this kid is coming with us.

Why? What occurred between Ancient Egypt and today’s Seder that makes this kid different?

The Rebbe explained: Those Jews in Egypt were connected to the Jewish people by birthright. They were children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and therefore, “My son, my first born, Israel.”6

It was only due to that connection through their forefathers that they were redeemed. Because, otherwise, they weren’t much better than their Egyptian oppressors.

These stay-behinders denied that connection. Even if they had been taken by the hand and schlepped out of there, they would not have been redeemed. Because they refused to let that connection enter within and redeem them.

But at Sinai, something entirely new happened. Those who were redeemed were charged with a mission—by the One who Created heaven and earth and every human soul. G‑d chose them and they chose G‑d.

Now let me tell you something Choice is the essence of freedom. And choice lies at the essence of Jewishness.about choice.

Choice is a very Jewish idea. Choice is the essence of freedom. And choice lies at the essence of Jewishness.

To some, the essence of all things is wisdom. To others, it is math. To others, love. Or pleasure. Or nothingness.

To a Jew, nothing has to be the way it is, or be at all. Whatever is, is only because G‑d chose it to be so. True free choice lies beyond reason—because reason also exists only by virtue of choice. If so, choice lies at the very core of all being. Including our being.

So when G‑d chose us and we chose G‑d at Sinai, it wasn’t some sort of label tacked on to us. He didn’t choose us because of some particular quality or nature. He chose us from that place where it all begins. It was a choice that defined our very being from that point on.

The Washington Haggadah
The Washington Haggadah

How To Look at a Jew

What the Rebbe taught us, then, is to look beneath the veneer and see deep within the Jew. Beyond what he says, how he acts, what he professes to believe or not believe. Beyond all that to his very core and essence.

And there you will find a pure soul. A soul defined only by G‑d’s choice in this child’s destiny, and by this soul’s choice in the G‑d of Israel.

Don’t argue with him, the Rebbe said. Show him love. Get him to do a mitzvah. Then another mitzvah. Eventually, the Jew will come out.

The day of the ingathering of the exiles will be difficult, as though G‑d Himself must actually seize hold of each individual’s hands, dragging him from his place, as it is said, “And you shall be gathered one by one, oh you children of Israel.”7

Rashi to Deuteronomy 30:3.

In previous generations, we chased such troublemakers away. Today, the Rebbe taught us, we can no longer even think of such a thing. Not just because we can no longer afford such a strategy, but because today we have the ability, and the promise, to ensure that no Jew will be left behind. Meaning, that core-essence of every Jew will one day shine.

As Maimonides puts it, “Indeed, the Torah long since assured us that in the end, at the close of the period of exile, Israel will return to G‑d, and immediately they will be redeemed.”8