The Most Difficult Part of the Seder
Not long ago, I asked a group of people who lead sedarim, “What is the most difficult part of the seder?” Initially, I received answers like, “Staying up,” or “Singing Chad Gadya.” Upon further reflection, however, they identified a more serious challenge: engaging their audience – which likely includes both adults and children – with the Haggadah. How do we deal with the competing interest levels when we have guests of varying ages and abilities?
Competing Self Interests
We prepare material. We get all dressed up. We bring out all our finest silver. And then someone lets all the air out of the balloon. It’s may be the skeptic, the rebel, and the impatient family member. Someone has a complaint. “You’re going too slow!” “When are we going to eat?” “Who cares about all this stuff; just get it over with!”
And then there are ourselves. Maybe we don’t care about the seder, or maybe we care too much and desire to indulge in cerebral gymnastics at the peril of our guests.
The Haggadah itself addresses this archetype as the rasha, often translated as the “Wicked Son.” Why wicked? Because he asks his question in the second person, and thus excludes himself from the seder and even Passover itself. He asks, “What purpose is all this work to you?”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quotes the Talmud Yerushalmi that interprets the rasha’s question as, “What is all this effort (torach) that you undertake each year?” Thus, he demonstrates a disdain of all the hard labor associated with Passover. He further quotes the Ritva, who explains that the rasha is asking, “Why delay the meal with so much talking, so many questions, answers, and explanations”?
The antidote suggested by the Haggadah is to “blunt the teeth” of the rasha. That seems harsh. I wonder if it was such a rare event in the days of Mishnah, when the original Haggadah began to be codified. Maybe this question was more theoretical back then. Moreover, some commentators seem to imply that the term rasha described heretics who had left the religion and were likely not even at the table.
However, the simple reading of the Haggadah implies that this is one of four types of children whom a parent may encounter at their table.
Examining Other Commentators
The Chida (Chaim Yosef David Azulai) writes that he once met a man without a beard and asked him why he had shaved.
The man replied, “Just as I was born without a beard, I continue to live without one.”
“Now,” said the Chida, “I understand what is meant by blunt his teeth (in reference to the wicked son). Just as he was born without teeth, thus he should remain without teeth (Otsar HaSipurim 8:14).” Maybe he should have changed his name to the bedicha (Hebrew for jokester)! It seems the Chida displays no tolerance for the rasha.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes a long essay about the rebellious child and generation in which he lived (at the height of the Reform movement). One can sum up his perspective in the following quote from his essay:
The key to unlocking the hearts of this estranged generation rests in the Hands of God. Only experience can bring them back, the experience of emptiness, futility, and frustration, the disillusionment with the frivolous things to which they had turned. This experience will ultimately fill their hearts with longing for the lost happiness which the ancient truth had given them and it will lead them to [return to their roots]. One will have to wait for that time to arrive.
While Rabbi Hirsch goes on to say that one should not be completely silent, his general modus operandi is to just wait. Barely engage the rasha – your words will have less effect than the ups and downs of life itself.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov has a completely different view of the rasha. In fact, his view of all the “sons” is that each reflects an aspect of the self. He refers to the Wise, Wicked, Simple, and “The One Unable to Ask” as the “Wise Self,” “Wicked Self,” “Simple Self,” and the “Sleeping Self.” He encourages everyone to look at themselves – before being critical of others. Rebbe Nachman’s rasha is one who mocks and brazenly brings his mockery into the open.
Unlike Rav Hirsch, Rebbe Nachman offers a solution. He recommends that the rasha must be brought in contact with the tzaddik – the tzaddik being one whose soul is deeply connected to G-d and who can see deep into the rasha’s soul to find the good within him. The tzaddik will find the good in the rasha and show him that even he is truly worthy in G-d’s eyes.
Finally, we hear from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who offers the following advice to the dealing with the Wicked Son to whom the Haggadah recommends harsh rebuke. The Lubavichter Rebbe writes,
“our approach to the Wicked Son should not be a harsh one, which is likely to alienate him altogether. Rather, with affection and love we should explain, “If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed from the Egyptian exile. However, from our current and final exile he WILL be saved along with the rest of the Jewish people. For at Mount Sinai, G-d has forged an intrinsic, unbreakable connection with every Jew, regardless of his ethical and spiritual standing.
Is Hard Work Truly Bad?
Rabbi Sacks writes that in Judaism, we usually celebrate the “kula” – the easy. Our view, it seems, is that if we make something easier, more people will want to do it. As such, by making observance easier on Jews, more Jews will remain or become religious.
Rabbi Sacks then conducted the following experiment (and I recommend you try this, too): He polled his audience to identify the most difficult festival to observe. The majority identified Passover as being the most burdensome (many also identified Yom Kippur). Then he pointed out that most surveys have identified that the most observed holidays by Jews are Passover and Yom Kippur. His point was that hard work added value to a holiday in the eyes of celebrants. This is completely counter to what we have come to believe.
The Take Away
Clearly there are many ways to deal with difficult people, children, or other family members. However, increasing positive effort and engagement seem to lead to success. It is incumbent on the seder leader to prepare in advance, to find new material and creative ways with which to engage everyone, regardless of their spiritual station. But the leader should also leave “work” for the others – fun opportunities for the family and guests to exert themselves.
May your Passover efforts be fruitful and blessed with great success.
Jonathan Sacks, “What Does This Avodah Mean to You”, 2014
The Kol Menachem Haggadah, The Gutnick Library of Jewish Classics, First Edition 2008
The Breselov Haggadah, Breslov Research Institute, 1989
Haggadah of the Chassidic Masters, Mesorah Publications, 1990
The Hirsch Haggadah, Feldheim Publishers, 1993