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| When your children say to you, “What is this service to you?” you shall answer, “It is a Passover feast offering to G-d, Who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when He plagued the Egyptians, and He saved our households” (12:26-7).
The Passover Hagada teaches us that “the Torah speaks of four sons: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one unable to ask questions”. The Hagada, following the Mechilta, says that the above question is that of the wicked son.
This interpretation of the verse poses the following problems:
1. A simple reading of the above dialogue does not imply anyone actually wicked.
2. The Hagada does not give the answer to the question that the Torah gives. The Torah answers as above - by telling the son about the Passover sacrifice and its meaning – “It is a Passover feast offering to G-d, Who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when He plagued the Egyptians, and He saved our households”. The Mechilta, which the Hagada follows, answers the question of the wicked son differently. It takes the answer that the Torah gives to the simple son: “Because of this, G-d did for me when I came out of Egypt” (13:8), and uses it as a reply to the wicked son. It then adds a severe interpretation: ‘for me and not for him; if he had been there, he would have not been redeemed’. Why did the Mechilta need to bring that new answer? And why did it add that harsh final comment?
3. In the context of the verse, the question “What is this service to you?” does not seem unreasonable. After all, the father was delivered from Egypt, not the son. There is a generation gap.
There are three pointers, which when combined, suggest an approach to the issues involved.
Firstly, the questions of both the wise son and the simple son, as related in the Torah, contain the word laymor – ‘saying’. The question of the wise son opens with: When sometime in the future, your son asks – laymor – saying…(Deut. 6:20). The simple son’s questions opens in a similar manner: When sometime in the future your son will ask – laymor – saying… (13:14). By contrast, the question of the wicked son is outright – What is this service to you? The word laymor does not occur.
Rashi elsewhere implies that laymor is attached to a statement or a question in order to induce a dialogue. When G-d called to Moses from the Tent of Meeting, he included the word laymor. Rashi explains that word to mean – go and tell (My people) My commandments, and report back to me whether they accept them (Rashi on Lev. 1:1).
Applied to this discussion, laymor is used to show that when the wise son and the simple son ask their respective sentences, they are both serious and sincere. They want answers; they want discussion. They are open-minded to ideas: each on their own level. The wicked son avoids laymor because he does not care to listen to what his father has to tell him. He has his own answer- ‘Your children say…’ Say, not ask! He is stating within his question that the Passover service has nothing to do with him. So the very way that the Torah expresses the question shows that it comes from the mouth of the son who does not want to know.
The second element to consider is the way the Hagada interprets the four dialogues between father and son that are related by the Torah (12:26-7, 13:8, 13:14, Deut. 6:20-1). The Hagada brings the tradition that each dialogue is referring to a different type of personality’s reaction to the proceedings of the Passover Seder – ‘the Torah speaks with reference to four sons’. In each case it brings a different answer – in the spirit of King Solomon’s advice: Educate a son according to his way (Proverbs 21:22). Underlying the statement of the Hagada is that the answer given to the son’s question must be effective.
During Temple times, the mention of the Passover sacrifice served as a sharp answer to the wicked son’s question. It is an object lesson, showing how that sacrifice caused Him to pass over the Israelites, when He plagued the Egyptians and He saved our households. If he, the wicked son, had been in that generation, he would not have been saved. To that end, the Midrash (Tanchuma, Beshalach 1) goes even further: it has the tradition that the many Israelites who resisted the redemption died during the Plague of Darkness.
After the destruction of the Temple and the cessation of the Passover sacrifice, reasons the Hagada, this verse by itself will not be an effective answer to the wicked son. For this reason the Hagada prefaces its answer with You must also tell him, ‘Because of this, G-d did for me...’ and out of that comes the harsh rebuke ‘if he had been there, he would have not been redeemed’. In short the Mechilta and the Hagada use underlying educational theme to add to the Torah’s answer so as to give it maximum effect.
The third theme is the manner in which the Torah expresses the wicked son’s question. Unlike the others, which are in the singular, his question is put into the plural: ‘When your children say’. Rabbi Dr. Marcus Lehmann comments as follows:
All wise men who seek the truth have only one object, the sole truth. They can be summarized in the singular. So, too, simple people can be reckoned as one, and how much more so those who do nor know how to ask. But the wicked appear in many forms. One denies G-d’s holy commandments through his lust for pleasure… As he drains the cup of happiness to the dregs, he scornfully asks those who feel bound by G-d’s commandments: What is this service to you? Another revolts against the Law… to acquire wealth… he lies, deceives, and takes mean advantages, and works on the sacred day of the L-rd in order to increase his wealth. A third is driven to divorce himself from the congregation of Israel…being now included among the great men of his country, he asks his former co-religionists disdainfully: What is this service to you? (Lehmann’s Passover Hagada, p.42)
Hence the use of the plural – to signify wickedness, which comes from many different roots.
Thus the Hagada derives from the way the Torah phrases the question that it is addressed to the situation of the wicked son. In fact it is not a question at all. It is an expression of defiance and an unwillingness to accept the Divine-ordained laws. Such a person must be given a decisive answer, so that he should not think himself wise; but acquire the humility to come to the right frame of mind to benefit from the teachings and values of the Passover Seder.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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