The passage about the four children within the Haggadah is often understood to be referring to four distinct personality types which are found among our people. Another interpretation is offered by Rabbi Yehudah Leib Chasman, a noted sage of mussar - Torah teachings related to ethics and character development. According to Rabbi Chasman, the '”Four Children” should not be understood as four distinct personalities, for the traits exemplified by them all struggle within each of us. One moment we are the wise child, the next moment the wicked child; one instant we are the simple child, the next instant we are unable to ask (The ArtScroll Haggadah of the Mussar Teachers).
In this letter, we will discuss the “wicked
child” whose attitude is considered to be rah
– evil. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains
that the Hebrew word rah - bad or evil,
is related to the Hebrew word ra'ah -
to break into pieces. Evil, explains Rabbi
Hirsch, appears as something “broken,” a
disturbance in the harmony of the world in which
the whole is no longer ruled by a uniform idea
(Commentary to Genesis 2:9). Evil results when
the diversity within the world is no longer
guided by the unifying Divine purpose.
Regarding the wicked child, the Haggadah states:
“The wicked child – what does he say? ‘Of what purpose is this service to you?’ He says, ‘To you,’ thereby excluding himself. By excluding himself, he denies the essential principle.”
This child has noticed that the entire spectrum of the Passover mitzvos – from cleaning the house of chametz (leavened food) before Passover to the detailed rituals of the Passover Seder - consists of service. He wants no part of this service which seems to limit his personal freedom; thus, on the night that we celebrate the birth of our people and the beginning of our journey to Mt. Sinai, this child separates himself from the Community of Israel, saying: “Of what purpose is this service to you?” And the Haggadah responds to his cynical question by stating that “he denies the essential principle.”
What is the essential principle that is being denied? I would like to suggest that one answer can be found in the very first essential principle given to humanity when Hashem Elokim – the Compassionate and Just One – placed the human being in the Garden of Eden:
“And Hashem Elokim took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to guard it.” (Genesis 2:15)
We were created to serve! As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments: “The earth was not created as a gift to you - you have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration as God's earth, and everything on it as God's creation” (The Nineteen Letters - Letter Four). This principle also reminds us that we are only the custodians of the earth; moreover, the Creator limits human autonomy with the following dietary restriction:
“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat” (Genesis 2:16,17)
This limitation reinforces the awareness that the human being is not the owner and sovereign of the earth. The Torah records, however, that the human being developed resentment over this restriction - this act of discipline which limited human autonomy. A “leavening” process took place within the human spirit which caused the human being to become puffed up with pride and arrogance.
Just as yeast causes the dough to expand and
become “chametz” - leavened, so too, pride
caused the human spirit to expand and become
chametz. When the human spirit took on the
nature of chametz, the human being began to view
everything in creation as being created to serve
himself and gratify his desires; thus, instead
of serving and giving, the human being became a
taker. This is why the human being decided to
eat the “forbidden fruit.” And when human teeth
bit into this fruit, humanity lost the Garden of
When the rebellious voice within the human being calls out: “What is this service to you,” it is reenacting the drama of the Garden. It is a voice which is denying the following essential principle: Each and every one of us was placed on this earth to serve in every area of our existence. If, however, we believe that there’s an area of life where we don’t have to serve, then in that area of life, we become “takers” - biting into the fruit for our own selfish gratification. The Haggadah therefore adds the following rebuke to the rebellious voice:
“Blunt his teeth and tell him: ‘It is because of this that Hashem did so for me when I went out from Egypt.’ For me, and not for him: If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.”
It was the sharp teeth of human beings biting into the forbidden fruit that caused us to lose the Garden, and the wicked one is displaying the same selfish and arrogant attitude which led to our exile from Eden. “Blunt those teeth,” says the Haggadah, through a strong wake-up call that will make him aware of the harm he is causing himself. Let him know that with his arrogant and self-centered attitude, he would not have been able to leave the bondage of Egypt. This is because on Passover, we began the journey back to the Garden of Eden, and that journey begins with a readiness to serve.
All of the mitzvos of Passover are training us to serve. We clean our homes and property from all chametz – a reminder that we are to serve with all our possessions. And we do not take chametz into our mouths – a reminder that we are to serve with our bodies and all our physical desires. The bread we eat is unleavened – free of the arrogance of human pride. In this way, we also do a tikun – a fixing – for the eating of the forbidden fruit.
On the night of the Passover Seder, we are to
perform acts of sacred service and thereby
remember that our true purpose on this earth is
to serve and to give. In this spirit, we begin
the Seder by proclaiming: “Let all who are
hungry, come and eat; let all who are in need,
come and celebrate the Passover.”
The service of Passover is to remind us that the ultimate freedom is the freedom to fulfill our potential as human beings who are created in the Divine Image. The Compassionate One is the ultimate Giver; therefore we too have the potential to give and to serve. Our sages elaborate on this idea in the following story: The Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) relates that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Tzadok were at a celebration given by their teacher, Rabbi Gamliel, in honor of his son. Rabbi Gamliel personally served them, and his three disciples began to discuss whether it was proper for them to remain sitting and have Rabbi Gamliel, their teacher, personally serve them. Rabbi Tzadok said: “You are talking about the honor due to people. What about the honor due to the Omnipresent One? He causes the winds to blow and the rain to fall which enables all forms of vegetation to grow. The Almighty brings food to people; all the more so should even the greatest person serve others.”
According to some commentators, the rebuke to the wicked child is to serve as a wake-up call to begin a process of “teshuvah” – spiritual return and renewal. In this way, this child will finally internalize the following Passover message:
This service liberates us from an enslavement
to our selfish desires, and gives us the freedom
to be truly human. And through this service, we,
the Children of Israel, leave the land of
spiritual enslavement and begin the journey back
to the Garden - the place where all human beings
will be free to serve and to give.
Be Well and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. According to Jewish tradition, the leaven in the dough represents the “yetzer hara” – the evil inclination within the human being. For example, the Talmud records that Rabbi Alexandri would pray, “Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that it is our will to do Your will, and what prevents us? It is the ‘leaven in the dough’ and the subjugation to the kingdoms” (Brochos 17a).
2. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a noted sage of mussar, writes: “The works of the kabbalah tell us that the Egyptian Exile was meant to repair the damage done by the sin of Adam.” (This is cited in the ArtScroll Haggadah of the Mussar Teachers, by Rabbi Shalom Meir Wallach. For information, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/home .
3. The noted Chassidic sage, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, is among those commentators who teach that there is hope for the wicked child. Rabbi Nachman also teaches that we all, to varying degrees, have aspects of the “Four Children” within ourselves. Rabbi Nachman’s teachings can be found in, “The Breslov Haggadah,” compiled and adapted by Rabbi Yehoshua Starret. For information, visit: www.breslov.org .
4. The service which enables us to become truly human requires an inner discipline. A noted Torah educator of the previous generation, Irving Bunim, discusses the liberating power of this discipline in the following passage which includes a quote from a noted poet of India:
“Whether mankind likes it or not, the realization grows that an uncommitted life, free of any higher goals or responsibilities, brings a bondage worse than slavery. The Eastern poet, Rabindranath Tagore, moved intuitively toward this conclusion when he wrote: ‘I have on my table a violin string. It is free...But it is not free to do what a violin string is supposed to do - to produce music. So I take it, fix it in my violin, and tighten it until it is taut. Only then is it free to be a violin string.’ ” (“Ethics From Sinai” by Irving Bunim, Chapter 6, Mishnah 2)
“Ethics from Sinai” is published by Feldheim: www.feldheim.com .
5. The secret of human freedom is contained in the Divine message to every “pharaoh” that enslaves the human spirit: “Send out My child that he may serve Me” (Exodus 4:23).