YOUR CHILDREN WILL ASK – Passover questions – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Questions and answers can lead to knowledge. On Passover, and particularly on Seder night and in the next morning’s Torah reading, they set the unique tone of our holiday of freedom.
Exodus 12:26, which we read on both occasions, predicts this pattern: “It will be, when your children will say to you ‘What does this service mean to you?’” The Torah does not identify the questioner. But the Hagadah does. It calls him rasha, the wicked son. He says lachem – “to you,” not to him. Therefore in the Hagadah we are told to “set his teeth on edge” by quoting a line from the next chapter of Exodus: “Because of what G-d did for me when I came out of Egypt” and stresses “for me and not for him, because if he was there he would not be redeemed.” Thus the father is expected to rebuke his rebellious son for excluding himself from the family observance. The original response in the Torah, however, is different. On Pesach morning we will read: “You will say ‘This is a Passover offering to G-d who passed over the Israelite houses when He smote the Egyptians and delivered our homes.’” Why the difference? Why two different answers to the same question?
In a discussion of this topic covering several pages, the great commentary called the K’li Yokor – the “Vessel of Value” – building on doubts raised by Abarbanel, offers three pathways to answer the Wicked Son. Pathway #1 defines the following Torah verse as a general statement, not directed at anyone in particular. It just identifies a Passover offering. Besides, it is phrased in the plural, and could be directed to a whole movement of denial, “many straying children who want to stop the people from serving G-d.” Today we don’t call them straying children; that would be politically incorrect. We call them humanists, atheists, secularists, Communists, etc. But the message is there.
Pathway #2 characterizes the answer as directed to misguided interpreters. They say this whole observance is not for G-d, it’s for you! You are the ones who are eating and drinking. Therefore the Hagadah stresses the answer with the words “set his teeth on edge.” A quiet answer is easily digested, but a harsh answer is like tough sinews in the meat and sets the teeth on edge. The verse “Say that this is G-d’s Passover offering” would mean to the wicked son that only because of the offering was Israel redeemed. The Egyptians who did not bring the offering were struck with the plague of the firstborn. Now the wicked son admits that if he was there he would not participate in the offering. So he gets the harsh answer, his teeth are on edge, and his father follows with the message “for me and not for him.”
Pathway #3 points out that the same answer is given to both the wicked son and the infant who does not know how to ask. Only the added words “for me and not for him” are reserved for the wicked son. Therefore it would be proper to give the wicked son both answers. The quiet quote: “This is G-d’s offering” in the attempt to draw him in to the observance, and the harsh “what G-d did for me – not for him” to set his teeth on edge.
Like the K’li Yokor, we look for pathways to answer the challenges of our generation. One prominent rabbi caused a furor some years ago when he proposed the view that the Exodus story as we know it is fiction. Many people left his congregation in anger. What they missed was his message that if you went through the whole Seder and shared a sacred joy with your family, then “it happened for you.” In other words, our children all deserve both answers to their Passover questions, the soft and the harsh. Think about it. If you were there, would you be redeemed?