The wicked son, what does he say? “What is this service to you?!” (Ex. 12, 26, from the Passover Haggadah).
There are many people today who openly violate many sacred Jewish institutions yet are “proud to be a Jew.” They may dismiss Jewish observances as medieval anachronisms in the age of the internet, yet they vigorously assert their Jewish identity. They are generally good-natured, intelligent, sympathetic souls, and are in their innermost hearts preciously Jewish. This is a case of being a rasha without rishut, without evil. Perhaps, then, such a second son should be called not “Wicked” or “Evil,” but “Mistaken.” His waywardness is to be traced not to evil intent but to a lack of understanding; not to malice but to ignorance; not to wickedness but to a fundamental mistakenness. The failure of such a rasha is intellectual, not moral. He has not learned, he has not been taught, he does not understand. His views reflect the agnosticism of the times. He is the opposite not of tzaddik (pious one) but hakham (wise one). In the scale of wisdom represented by the Four Sons, the rasha is he who, although well endowed with natural intellectual gifts, has failed to make use of them or misused them in his Jewish, religious life.
This special kind of lovable rasha is fairly common nowadays. We dare not lightly level such an accusation against Jews who have demonstrated an almost unparalleled charitableness; who have helped so gallantly in the establishment and development of the State of Israel; who have constructed and supported so many synagogues and educational and philanthropic institutions. But they can, I believe, be identified with the second son, the Haggadah’s rasha, as we have described him. The second son is not a metaphysician. He merely likes his comfort — including his cognitive comfort with the anti-religious mode of society — and his convenience and just does not want to be bothered. Shabbat and Kashrut, Passover and Sukkot — these are burdensome. And why does our second son forfeit this precious heritage because of such considerations? Because, the Haggadist tells us, kafar be-ikkar, he has denied that which is fundamental. He is not a heretic. He may even believe in God. But out of an acute and amazing religious ignorance he clings religiously to the secondary while dismissing the primary and fundamental as unimportant!
The rasha must never be treated with disdain or enmity. We must approach him with understanding and sympathy. “Blunt his teeth,” the Haggadah tells us. Argue with him, debate with him, teach him, educate him. Show him that his scale of values is completely distorted, that the argument from convenience is unworthy of an intelligent person. Dull the sharpness of his complaint by demonstrating the valuelessness of his prejudices. Teach him that questions about Judaism can be meaningfully answered only when they are asked with the reverence of an “insider,” and not with the flippancy of an “outsider” to the Tradition. Ve-af atah hak’hei et shinav, bring your atah, your own self and personality into this dialogue. Teach by example. Establish friendly, warm, personal relations with him based upon a mutual personal respect and affection. Sooner or later he will realize that “illu hayah sham lo hayah nigal, that had he been there he would not have been redeemed,” that the survival of Jewry — a desire he shares with all Jews throughout the ages — can never be attained through such an attitude; that if all Jews took his attitude — the posture of an “outsider,” rejecting the fundamental for the trivial, excluding himself from the historic community of Tradition — our doom as a people and a communion would be sealed. But above all — love him!
A wrong question often asked by young people is: “What is the world going to give me?” The right question should be: “What does the world expect of me?” The wrong question is: “What are my rights?” The right question that should be asked is: “What are my duties?” The right question that a right-thinking person always asks himself is: “What should I?” The wrong question, one that reflects upon an immature and underdeveloped character, is: “Why can’t I?” President John F. Kennedy reminded us of the difference between the two when he urged us to ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country. This indeed is the difference between the hakham and the rasha of the Haggadah. The Wise Son asks for information as to his obligations and duties. The Wicked Son shrugs his shoulders and asks: “Mah ha-avodah ha-zot lakhem? What do you need all this for?” In fact, the rasha’s question is not a question at all! It is merely a challenge phrased interrogatively. It is a smug harangue with a question mark appended as an afterthought. It is an impertinent perversion of punctuation.
The Hasidic R. Nahman of Braslav offers an explanation of the dialogue with the Wicked Son quite different from that of the Haggadah. He has the rasha asking, “Where is your God?” which is a direct challenge to Judaism as it implies the denial of His very existence, rather than doubting the value of serving God. “Where is your God?” presupposes that God is not present where he, the Wicked Son, is. Therefore we must say to him, “Even in your place, immersed as you are in the very bowels of denial, there too you will be able to find His Godliness. Even from those inner depths you can cleave to Him and return to Him in complete repentance, because your Godliness is disguised in many garments.” The lesson is that no one is totally and eternally removed from God even if he questions the very existence of God, because he at the same time will find that God is immanent in him. We must never give up on anyone, including “the wicked of the world.”
Excerpted from newly published haggadah with extensive commentary, The Royal Table: A Passover Haggadah by Rabbi Norman Lamm.