Who Is the Wicked Son?
The fundamental lesson of Passover is that God’s love for us is unconditional.
I watched one of my kids stumble into a dark place recently. For a few hours he stewed in anger and blame and spurned all who came near. And then he emerged. His exodus taught me something about Passover and the rasha, the “wicked” son of the Haggadah.
Something set him off during a family outing. “I want to leave,” he said. “Can you drive me home?”
I was taken aback. Was he really asking me to leave the family for an hour round trip just to take him home?
I held my reaction. “I’m sorry, sweetie. Mommy and the kids need me here.”
He stayed in exile. My wife and I resolved not to give undue attention. An hour later I looked up and saw he’d rejoined the fun. That night, as he and I set the table together, he spoke about the day’s events.
“I feel like I need help with my anger,” he volunteered.
“Really?” I said. Helpful sermons danced at my lips. “What do you mean?” I asked instead.
“I got so angry today. I wanted to rejoin the family but I didn’t know how.” He looked sad.
“So what happened? How did you come back?”
He paused a moment. “I don’t really know.” So caught up in the memory of his suffering, he had forgotten how he got out of it.
This story came to mind as I revisited the Haggadah’s “wicked” son.
Wicked suggests enemy. Yet our sages draw a connection between the words rasha (wicked) and ra’ash (noise or commotion). The prophet likens the rasha to “the driven sea, incapable of quiet” (Isaiah 57:20) - more frenetic than foe. What does that mean?
When our minds are noisy – filled with stress, anger, fear – divine wisdom is drowned out. We’re destructive, not villainous.
With inner calm and quiet, we navigate life’s waves. We face obstacles and conflicts, but through an uncluttered mind the divine gift of wisdom finds its way to our heart. We fall, and we learn.
When our minds are noisy – filled with stress, anger, fear – divine wisdom is drowned out. We solve difficulties often by creating new ones. We’re destructive, not villainous. This is the rasha.
Consider the rasha’s question. The Hagaddah says, “What is this service to you?” – “to you” but not to him. Because he excludes himself from the community, he denies the essence [of Judaism].
Insecure and prone to despair, the rasha isolates himself; he’s dismissive. “I feel low. Lofty commandments aren’t accessible to me. I’ll tear them down.” He might even want to come close; he doesn’t know how.
Lost in the noise, he doesn’t see how his misunderstanding contradicts the essence of Judaism and holds him back. He believes that a relationship with God is for those who feel exalted. Since he doesn’t feel that connection, he mistakenly concludes that he’s excluded, shut out.
But the truth about Judaism – and the fundamental lesson of Passover – is that God’s love for us is unconditional. Feeling low and unworthy is more a testimony to our noisy mind than God’s. No matter how low, how far, how unworthy we might feel, God doesn’t waver. He just asks that we consider His view of us and make an effort.
Our job is to see beyond the rasha’s noisy mind; he’s more “temporarily unsettled” than villain. The four sons at the Seder are not defined personalities anyway; they’re aspects in every child, in every one of us. At times we are full of wisdom, and other times we close down, insecure, trapped by our inner noise.
So we stand up to the rasha – with compassion.
“Blunt his teeth,” says the Haggadah, “and tell him, ‘It is because of this [service] that God did for me when I left Egypt.’”
“You’re mistaken,” we say. “It’s not a function of how exalted we feel that makes us worthy of leaving Egypt. It’s a function of this – the act of sincere service and effort – that enables us to go.”
I’m proud of my son’s moment of introspection. I saw that his hostility said more about his state of mind than his essence. And thankfully, I didn’t battle or indulge him. I backed off. Faced with the consequences of his own chosen path, he settled down. The wise kid showed up.
May we merit to understand the rasha in ourselves and in our children, and taste what it means to receive God’s gift of leaving our own Egypt.