Monday, April 2, 2012

A New Look at the Wicked Son

This past Shabbat, Rena and I traveled to Naharia (a nice beach town north of Haifa) for Orot's staff Shabbat. I heard a wonderful thought about the Rasha - the wicked son - from Rav Ze'ev Hass, an instructor at Orot.
For parents and educators, we find the Wicked Son the most challenging of children. First of all, what parent would even label her child as "wicked"?
רשע מה הוא אומר? 'מה העבודה הזאת לכם?' - ולא לו. ולפי שהוציא עצמו מן הכלל וכפר בעיקר, אף אתה הקהה את שיניו, ואמור לו: 'בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים' - לי ולא לך, אילו היית שם לא היית נגאל! 
What does the Wicked Son say? "What is this worship for you?" - and not for him. And because he excluded himself, he has rejected a founding principle. You too must blunt his teeth and say to him, "For this God did for me when I left Egypt." For me and not for him. Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.
The Questions
We all well know the questions regarding the Rasha. At face value, his question really isn't that difficult: מה העבודה הזאת לכם - "what is this worship of yours?" His question is so similar to the question of the Wise Son that we are left to wonder why we react to him in such a seemingly harsh manner, and to the Wise Son with such love and care. Secondly, as soon as he stops speaking, we stop talking to him, and start talking about him - in third person. Only then do we return to speaking to him to deliver our harsh response. Finally, the answer that the Hagadah provides to the Rasha should trouble us. Blunt his teeth? Tell him that he would still be in Egypt? When has that worked on a child?

Not an Only Child
Rav Hass suggested an answer by considering the "Wicked Son" not in a vacuum, but in contrast to his brother - the Wise Son. Imagine this son growing up, constantly trying to compete with his older, "perfect" brother. (This phenomenon isn't that unusual.) The oldest is often the most accomplished - intellectually, physically, educationally. Imagine how his brother feels when he's the one in school whose teachers always say, "Are you the Chacham's brother?" (As much as we ask teachers not to say things like that, somehow they still do...) How about at report card time, when he invetiably compares his grades to his "perfect" brother's? It's not hard to imagine him thinking that he can never really live up to the standard his brother set for him, so why bother?

The "Wicked Son" in our Schools
If you've ever taught in a school that tracks students by ability, you can see this phenomenon outright. It doesn't matter how you label the classes: "A1, A2, A3"; "Masmidim, Lomdim" - whatever you call them, the students in the bottom class know that they're the "dummy" class, and they'll say so outright. Oh - they'll do something else as well. They'll stop trying. After all, if their very own school calls them idiots, then why should they even bother trying to disprove them? (It's a good question that schools constantly struggle with: how do you establish an environment that allows excellent students to grow without labeling the others as inferior?)
That's our "Rasha". If he can't compete with his brother - and he can't - then why bother. So he begins to act out. We don't believe that children are inherently wicked. But he acts wickedly. His behavior certainly is bad, manifesting an attitude of apathy and indifference. And so he asks his question: "What is this worship of yours?" Why should I bother if I'll never measure up?

The Unique Nature of the Jewish Nation
Chazal teach us that at the time of the Exodux, the Jewish people found themselves in the depths of spiritual depravity and degradation. In the words of the Midrash, they had reached the 49th level of impurity, as far down as one can possibly descend and yet repent and return. What if they had adopted the attitude of the wicked son. Had the Jewish nation given up, the Exodus would never have taken place. This, explains Rav Hass, is the concept of the "Chosen Nation"; the unique quality of the Jewish people that we contain within us a spiritual spark which can, and ultimately must propel us to improve, grow and acheive spiritual greatness. This is an eternal "rule" of the Jewish people. Even if we ourselves cannot see the great potential within us, God can. He will redeem us and nurture us in order to draw out the spark of holiness that we all contain.
This inherent Jewish inherent quality will never change. And yet, it's the very notion that the Wicked Son rejects. So we say not to the Rasha - but about him, that if his apathetic attitude had been in Egypt, then he and the rest of us would never have been redeemed. Change can only come about when you believe in yourself and see not only your shortcomings, but the great potential within you to grow.

The Solution: Show Him the Truth
For this reason, we are instructed specifically to "blunt" his teeth (and not knock them out). Rav Hass noted a fascinating truth about God's creations: the more sophisticated and advanced a being is, the more primitive it is at birth. Think about it: animals are expected to get up and walk on their own moments after being born. Human beings, on the other hand, enter the world helpless, unable to care for themselves in even the most simple manner. We require nurturing, care and attention for years before we can take the necessary steps to care for ourselves, and then hopefully, our children. Nothing symbolizes this idea better than our teeth. We're born without them, and as we grow, our teeth grow, symbolizing our development and maturity. (Baby teeth --> adult teeth --> wisdom teeth). So, when addressing the Rasha's attitude of indifference, we tell him to look at his teeth. Does he really think that he was supposed to be born with a mouth full of teeth? Why then should he necessarily have to live up to the Chacham from the very beginning? Just as his teeth will grow and sharpen, so too will he develop, grow and become the person that he was meant to be.

"Our" Rasha
No parent today would label her child a "Rasha." (God forbid!) And yet, every parent and teacher knows which child feels inferior; that he cannot keep up with the stronger kids, and would rather not bother. Our task must be to instill in our children a sense of potential. We must help them sharper their teeth (ושננתם לבניך - from the word שן - see Rashi) to the point that they too have a sense of confidence in their unique abilities.
Like the Jewish nation, every child has that spark. It's up to us to help it emerge - to bring each and every child the personal redemption he or she can and must achieve.