When Your Child is the Wicked Son
We need to have faith not only in the Almighty but faith in our children.
Raising children isn’t easy. It’s a full-time job with no pay. Yet most parents will tell you it’s worth it. The rewards are infinite; the joys are indescribable. We take pride in the achievements of our progeny. Their accomplishments mean more to us than our own. They are the source of our greatest happiness.
But what if we need to face the reality that a child of ours is not the “the wise son” of the Haggadah that we prayed for? Rather it appears we are stuck with “the wicked son.” We followed all the rules for good parenting but we seem not to have been successful. Our child doesn’t share our values. He rejects our traditions. He asks, “What is this service to you?” - mocking our commitment to Judaism and observance of mitzvot, indicating his disinterest in being part of our people.
What comfort does the Haggadah offer these parents on the night of the Seder when they so desperately want to be happy, only to be emotionally shattered by the reality of their personal family misfortune?
An answer perhaps suggests itself from a peculiarity in the order in which the four sons are listed. The Haggadah tells us that “the Torah speaks of four kinds of sons.” It then goes on to list them: one is wise, one is wicked, one is simple, and one does not even know what to ask. Logic would have dictated a different sequence. The two extremes, the wise and the wicked, ought to be at the ends, the other two in the center. What is the rationale for the order in which they are presented?
Perhaps the reason is that we follow the simple rule of age. The oldest is mentioned first, the youngest last. With that as our guide, the sequence makes perfect sense. From bottom to top, the last, the youngest, is one who does not even know enough to ask. That is the child who is hardly old enough to speak. It is followed by the simple son, the one whose limited intelligence permits him only to ask “what is this?”
Older still is the child of rebellious teenage years, going through a stage in which his striving for independence makes it difficult for him to accept parental values and guidance. Thankfully though the sequence does not stop here. It is one of the universal blessings that as children come to greater maturity they find the wisdom to acknowledge that their parents are not as stupid as they came to believe when they were teenagers. In the profound words of Mark Twain, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
The four sons are describing four life stages of one child, from infancy through childishness, passing into rebelliousness and finally maturing to true wisdom.
The four sons may in fact therefore not be speaking of four different children but four stages in the life of every one of them - stages that take them from infancy through childishness, passing into rebelliousness and finally maturing to true wisdom.
That may be why the Haggadah, although ostensibly speaking about four different sons, keeps repeating the word echad - one. One and the same person is no less than four people in the journey of life – and that is why we dare never give up hope when we encounter a child passing through the stage of the rebel.
There is a famous tale told of a Jew from the shtetl who for the first time went to see one of the largest cities in Poland. He came back with an amazing story to share, telling his friends he could hardly believe what he saw there. “I visited Vilna and saw a person who made a great effort to learn Torah all day. And I saw a person who spent all day thinking about how to make money. And I saw a person whose inclination raged within him every time he saw a woman in the street. And I saw a person who would always close his eyes so he would not stumble in seeing forbidden things. And I saw a person who always spoke gossip. And I saw someone who struggled to keep his mouth closed!”
They said to him: “What is so surprising – Vilna is a huge city with many Jews?”
“Yes,” he said, “but what was remarkable is that it was only one person!”
It is a mistake to think of people as one-dimensional. The wisest are at times wicked, the sagest temporarily simple or unable even to offer a question. Life is a book with many chapters, open-ended and constantly open to dramatic change and transformation.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable things we have seen in our lifetime is the incredible growth of the movement of hundreds of thousands of Jews returning to Torah, Jewish observance and pride in their Jewish identity. The “wicked sons” of years past almost miraculously have been reborn as the “wise sons” at the Seder.
Passover is a holiday which demands optimism. Its message is redemption – not only national redemption from exile and slavery but personal redemption from estrangement from God and our people. We need to have faith. Faith not only in the Almighty but faith in our children. Faith in those who may have temporarily lost their way. Faith that “the wicked son” is just a stage on the road to becoming “the wise son.”