Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Gift of the Wicked Child

"Behold I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming
of the great and awesome day of the L-rd.
And he shall shall turn the hearts of the parents to their children,
and the hearts of the children to their parents;
lest I come and smite the earth with utter destruction."
--Malachi 3:23 - 24 (quoted from the Haggadah)

"Four times the Torah instructs us " and you shall tell your child on that day . . ."
From this we may infer that there are four kinds of children--
the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask."

It's amazing that a week has passed since I last posted. Much has happened, but despite a totaled car (no one seriously hurt), cleaning for Passover, and other happenings, Pesach came and we had a beautiful Seder. It was small this year--ten people gathered around our table--and we engaged the Hagaddah (The Telling) together, having in-depth discussions at several places. This is important, for each one of us has the obligation to leave the Seder with the understanding that "in every generation each one of us must feel as if we had personally come forth from Egypt."

As always, familiar words that form the background year after year, can suddenly leap off the page as we fulfil the mitzvah to tell our children "on that day" the every absorbing story of redemption and freedom. Several passages in the Hagaddah did fair leap out at me this year, and one was the story of the Four Children and it danced in my head throughout, until late in the Seder, after the Afikomen and Birchat ha-Mazon, became linked to a passage from Malachi about the shadowly Elijah the Prophet.

"The wise child asks: 'What are the laws, precepts,
and observances that G-d has commanded us?'
In response we should explain the observances
of Passover thoroughly, the very last one of which
is after the Afikomen, we do not turn to other
kinds of entertainment."

The wise child is the easy one. This is the teacher-pleaser, the delight of every parent; the child who is interested in observing Pesach (and doing everything else) the right way the first time. This is a kid who learns from the experience of others, and so does not have to bang his head away on the hard stones of the wall of personal experience. Not much of challenge, this one!

"The wicked child asks: 'What does this service mean to you?' He says
'to you' and not 'to us', placing himself outside of the People Israel.
Therefore we should blunt his teeth, saying: 'It is because of what G-d did
for me when I went forth from Egypt'--that is for me and not for
you--for had you been there, you would not have been redeemed."

Now this child is the real challenge. For whatever reason, he is the one who does not want to be at the Seder, the one who believes that redemption from slavery does not apply to him. Which of us can say that we have never been this child? Which of us would admit that we have never thought about it in such a way? In many ways, this child is my favorite, for he has excluded himself and yet is there at the Seder nevertheless, asking questions, wanting to be part of it. This child presents us not only with a challenge, but with a gift.

To appreciate the gift of the "wicked" child, we must dig deep and realize that no one is free unless all are free--even those whose ideas and questions rock our worlds, disturbing our complacency. Liberty means that we cannot violate the rights of those who live differently and who challenge our beliefs. The "wicked" child is the one who in refusing to march to our tune, brings us to new insight into the awesome gift of freedom. The "wicked" children are those nails that stick up, begging to be hammered down. And the enslaved often do just that, destroying the precious spark of an independent mind. The 'wicked' children are already living liberty; they are outside of Mitzrayim --(the narrow places of slavery)--and are capable of teaching those who would consider their question at each year's Seder.

Many of our teachers have understood the 'wicked child' in a positive light, seeing him as the sensitive and idealistic child in search of the meaning at the core of the stories we tell. In various ways they suggest that the wicked child is really asking: Here you stand at the shores of the sea, having come through the birth waters into freedom, and yet your service is as vacuous as the slave-labor of Egypt. Where is your Kavanah (the understanding, the intention of your action)? Or is freedom really so meaningless to you that you remain enslaved in the face of miracles?

The wicked children are the challengers of slavery to unthinking routine and drugery; they insist that we open our eyes and see that with freedom, the boundaries of our world expand to the horizon and beyond, to notice that daily we walk sightless among miracles*. And that the greatest miracle of all is the human gift of freedom that challenges us to live up to our greatest abilities.

*The Jewish concept of 'miracle' does not entail the suspension of natural law. Rather, miracles are insight into the workings of natural law to further the life and happiness of those who notice them.

"The simple child asks: "What is this?"
And we say: "With a strong hand and a mighty arm,
were we redeemed from the bondage of the Egyptians."
To the person of open simplicity, give a straightforward answer."

The simple child is the young and happy child, who asks simply and trusts a simple answer. There is no need to belabor the details, nor to challenge such a child. For he did not challenge you.

"With the child unable to ask, you must begin yourself, saying:
'This is because of what G-d did for me, when I went free out of Egypt.' "

If a child does not ask, we must begin ourselves to awaken their curiousity about why we celebrate the great festival of our freedom, in order to gently lead them to wonder about why this freedom is so important.

The Four Children remind us that people deal differently with ideas, and that we all find ourselves in the four different roles during our lives, and with respect to different challenges and events. There are those who are awake and want to be told what to do; there are those who are awake and want to understand the ideas behind what we do; there are those who are just waking up and wondering what we are doing; and there are those who are still sleeping and might need to be prodded to notice what we are doing.

And still, my favorite is the "wicked" child. And maybe it's because I often find myself in the role of the wicked child. Still. At my age, I have not yet developed the desire to do what I am told simply because I am told to do it.

There is a place in the world for the wicked child.
The wicked child may not have been redeemed because he was already free.
Perhaps it is he (or she, or me) who forces the turning of the hearts of the parents, and the hearts of the child, in order to prevent utter destruction.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved this post...very nice!