#221: What Did the Wicked Child Do?
Marbeh Lesaper on the Haggadah
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Gimme Some Torah #221
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The רָשָׁע (wicked child) in the Haggadah’s Parable of the Four Children has always fascinated me. What did he do that is so bad? Yes, I know that the parable says “he removed himself from the community and thus denied a fundamental principle” by saying “What does this ritual mean to you” rather than “What does this ritual mean to me?”
The problem with that ancient explanation, correct though it may be, is that the wise child also asked, “What does this ritual mean to you,” the only difference being that he used the word אֶתְכֶם (etkhem, with you) instead of לָכֶם (lakhem, to you).
This is a very subtle grammatical difference, and it may be a difference without a distinction. Whatever the difference is between these two words, grammar is a very weak reason to criticize the wicked child so harshly. I frequently hear native speakers of English mess up the language’s grammar all the time, but I don’t assume they mean anything hostile. So there must be a deeper reason why the Haggadah calls this child wicked.
R. Yedidia Tiah Weil (bio), author of the Marbeh Lesaper commentary, offers an intriguing interpretation. He makes the following comment on the wicked child’s question:
. . .the wicked child’s question. . .still has a negative implication. First, he wants to know the reason for the rituals but his question implies that even if he knows the reason, he is not going to perform this act. He asks, “What does this service mean to YOU,” and not to HIM.
By seeking the answer to a question when he has no intention of following what the Torah says, the wicked child is not only mocking God. He’s also mocking the entire point of Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. The goal of Talmud Torah is not merely intellectual stimulation—it’s supposed to lead to the performance of mitzvot.
The point is that the wicked child has no valid excuse for his behavior. He is a not just a wicked person but a brazenly wicked person, a רָשֶׁע לְהַכְעִיס (rasha l’hakhis). A rasha l’hakhis is a wicked person who transgresses not out of weakness or appetite or because of some problem in his childhood, but rather out of a raw and naked desire to anger God. Sins that are done out of weakness or appetite are more forgivable than those done out of a raw desire to enrage the Holy One.
It should be noted that Jews are allowed to be angry at God. When God hears that we are angry, I imagine the Holy One saying, “Take a number, next!” We are not, however, allowed to express our anger at God through sin. Doing so only hurts ourselves and the people around us, and that is why the Haggadah upbraids the wicked child so harshly.
Have you been angry at God? Why? Can you love God and be angry at God simultaneously? (Spoiler alert: You can)
If we are not allowed to express our anger at God through sin, how should we do it?
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Rabbi Eli Garfinkel is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey. He is the author of The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary.