The Wicked Son – Revisited!

naughtysonOn Shabbat Hagadol, we delved into the topic of the “Four Sons” of the Pesach Seder.  It seems each time that one discusses this topic, conversation tends to focus on the בן הרשע, “the wicked son”.  What seems to make us most uncomfortable is the approach we take to answering him, not politically correct nor prudent during an age where Jewish life demands a pleasant, welcoming, “outreach” approach to those Jews who are distant from Jewish learning and tradition.

One approach is that of Rabbi Amnon Bazak; he notes that the question of the wicked son מה העבודה הזאת לכם – What is this worship/service to you? – appears in the Torah in the context of the Pesach sacrifice.  The cynicism with which this “son” asks his question is understood as an attack on the religious value of the Korban.  There are only two positive mitzvot in which failure to act makes one liable for the punishment of כרת – excision from the Jewish people: one is the Korban Pesach, the other: Brit Milah – circumcision.

What links these two mitzvot is that they both are highly symbolic “signs” of identification with our people.  One who refrains from performing Brit Milah on his son or from offering the Korban Pesach when the Temple is standing effectively opts out of the Jewish community.  Karet/excision is therefore an appropriate consequence of this conscious disconnect. It’s by no coincidence that the Hagadah rebukes the Rasha by saying that had he been in Mizraim, he would not have been redeemed.

On Shabbat Hagadol, we observed that the Hagadah’s “Four Sons” represents a midrashic, homiletic understanding of the Torah, that on a “peshat (plain meaning)” level, the wise, wicked, and simple sons do not appear clearly in the text. On the second day of Yom Tov, I presented what I think is a more authentic source for the רשע of the Torah:

  יג וַיֵּצֵא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי, וְהִנֵּה שְׁנֵי-אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים נִצִּים; וַיֹּאמֶר, לָרָשָׁע, לָמָּה תַכֶּה, רֵעֶךָ.

  Moses went out the next day, and he saw two Hebrew men fighting. ‘Why are you beating your brother?’ he demanded of the wicked one.

 

Rashi  observes that the future form תַכֶּה, implies that the one Hebrew was about to hit his fellow Hebrew, though he had not done so yet.  “We derive from here that merely raising one’s hand to smite another person gives a person the status of a רשע, a wicked person.”  The aggressive Hebrew was indeed a רשע, and the Torah is conveying an essential lesson about its view of aggressive behavior.

I would like to offer an additional understanding of the passage.  Perhaps the status of רשע – “wicked” was a label that Moshe had bestowed on the Hebrew; in other words, Moshe had assessed his behavior, judged him, effectively “taking him out of the community”.

Moshe’s appeal: why are you about to hit your fellow (Hebrew) – hoping that their shared nationality would strike a chord in the aggressor – fell on deaf ears:

 יד וַיֹּאמֶר מִי שָׂמְךָ לְאִישׁ שַׂר וְשֹׁפֵט, עָלֵינוּ–הַלְהָרְגֵנִי אַתָּה אֹמֵר, כַּאֲשֶׁר הָרַגְתָּ אֶת-הַמִּצְרִי; וַיִּירָא מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר, אָכֵן נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר.

‘Who made you our prince and judge?…Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’
Moses was frightened. ‘The matter is known,’ he said.

It could be that we are being taught here that Moshe’s advance judgment of the aggressor itself triggered the unreceptive response:

יט  כַּמַּיִם, הַפָּנִים לַפָּנִים– כֵּן לֵב-הָאָדָם, לָאָדָם.

(19 As in water face answers to face, so the heart of man to man. (Mishlei/Proverbs

In other words, Moshe’s assessment itself could have contributed to the negative response; after having himself been “written off,” the Jew rejects Moshe’s appeal to “nationhood” as the basis upon which he should refrain from striking his fellow.

This in turn, prompts Moshe’s response. “The matter is known!”

On a “peshat” level, Moshe means that the word was out that he had killed the Egyptian.  On a homiletic level, Rashi offers the following explanation:

….the matter I was wondering about, [i.e.,] why the Israelites are considered more sinful than all the seventy nations [of the world], to be subjugated with back-breaking labor, has become known to me. Indeed, I see that they deserve it.

Moshe proceeds to paint all of the Israelites with the same brush: the level of wickedness exhibited by this Israelite is symptomatic of the entire nation.  Moshe subsequently flees not only from Paroh’s death threat (plain meaning of the text) but from his own people. Paradoxically, his critique of the Israelites failure to appreciate that which binds them together….. brings about his own voluntary disconnect from his people!

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in “Nefesh HaRav”) suggests that the encounter between G-d and Moshe at the burning bush be understood as a continuation of the passage that we are now identifying as the new passage of the Wicked Son.

When G-d commissions Moshe to lead the Jews out of Egypt, Moshe asks:

 מִי אָנֹכִי, כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.

 : For Rashi, this question can be divided into two parts

  • Who am I to speak with kings?
  • By what justification do the Israelites merit leaving Egypt?

For Moshe, the nation which deserved to be enslaved when he fled Mizraim, remains a nation of רשעים, of wicked people.

G-d’s answer to Moshe is already built into the image of the burning bush:  G-d speaks to Moshe out of the fiery heart of the bush, but the fire does not spread outwards.  Moshe is perplexed: Why does the bush remain intact and not get consumed by the fire?

Rav Soloveitchik: The bush represents the Jewish people, a nation with a warm fire burning inside. True, its external behavior has long hidden this inner flame.  The outside of the bush is not consumed: the inner flame has not yet manifested itself.  The Midrash hints at this when it cites G-d’s words:

רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת-עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם

I have surely seen the affliction of my nation in Egypt…

Midrash Rabba: Moshe, you see one dimension, I (G-d) see another…

Rav Soloveitchik: Moshe, you simply perceive the externalities, the apparent wickedness of this people,  but I see the internal flame.  I am sending you to redeem this people; their merit may not be obvious now, but it will become apparent once they accept the Torah on this very mountain.

Over the centuries, Jews have often been at the forefront of major political and social movements.  Jewish participation in these activities may not always strike a responsive chord in each of us, but engrained in the Jewish psyche over the ages is a sincere desire to “repair the world.”  In contemporary Jewish life, authentic Jewish strivings also do not always express themselves in the most traditionally Jewish contexts.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, we often write off our fellow Jews if we think they are too far gone, too secularized, too removed from Jewish life to claim a place in our community.

So Moshe’s conviction that the Israelites do not deserve to be redeemed – a view first expressed in his encounter with the two Israelites in Egypt – continued at the burning bush.  His approach echoes the Hagadah’s declaration about the בן הרשע – the wicked son,

אילו היה שם לא היה נגאל

Were he to have been there, he would not have been redeemed.

It took G-d Himself to convince Moshe to tap into the פנימיות, the fire, burning in the heart of the bush.

Food for thought …. and a profound meditation for anyone questioning the value of Jewish outreach in the 21st century.

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