Pesach is the quintessential family holiday. The Haggadah is designed as a lesson for the parent to teach the child. We are commanded to tell the redemption story. Not only that, but the Haggadah also obligates one to feel as if God redeemed him/her from Egypt (“B’Chol Dor V’Dor Hayyav Adam Lir’ot Et Atzmo K’Ilu Hu Yatza MiMitzrayim”). There is a custom among certain Sephardim to act as if they themselves are leaving from Egypt; one thing they do is carry Matzah on their shoulders. However, for others who do not have these customs, the story we read is the same every year, potentially leaving many somewhat bored. Part of the command of “V’Higadeta L’Bincha” is to tell the story to each person according to his/her level, which we see from the four sons. Nevertheless, how do we make the story come alive, allowing us to truly experience redemption while sitting at a nicely set table in the twenty-first century?
The story of the four sons is perhaps a good starting point. As just mentioned, the story provides a model for how to approach different types of people. The Lubavitcher Rebbe z”l, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, claims that there is a fifth son, one who does not show up. He tries to explain that the Rasha, the wicked son, is not as evil as he first appears, for at least he comes to the Seder. Nevertheless, even the four models leave one scratching one’s head.
First, when looking to find a difference between the Hakham and Rasha, it seems pretty clear that they are polar opposites. However, the texts of their stories are almost grammatically identical! Both the Hakham and Rasha address their questions using the grammatical conjugation for you (“chem”), as in “Etchem” (Hakham) and “Lachem” (Rasha). However, when searching for original Nuschaot, we find that both the Mechilta (Bo 18) and the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesahim 10:4, 37d) have the word “Otanu” for the Hakham, modifying his words to be inclusive as opposed to the rasha’s, which remain exclusive. (For more information about the texts of the four sons, see Haggadah Shleimah, R. Menachem Kasher, pages 120-123, chapter called Arba’a Banim.) Once we recognize the potential textual difference between the Hakham and Rasha, we can better understand how to approach the people at our table
In other words, for the ones who include themselves in Jewish experiences, we do not have to treat the redemption as a history lesson but instead can focus on how to fulfill the obligations of Pesach. For the Tam and the She’aino Yodea Lish’ol, the job is simple; we merely incorporate them into the activities by telling them stories. However, when it comes to the Rasha, the answer is strange. After excluding him/herself from the experience of redemption, he/she is called a heretic, and told, “If you were there, God would not redeem you, unlike me, who is worthy of redemption.” The answer to the Rasha’s question seems odd because the only discussion of Jews not leaving Egypt is in a Midrash, quoted by Rashi (Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, Bo 12 s.v. V’haya Ki among other places), regarding the word “Hamushim”. “Hamushim” indicates that only one out of every five (or 50 or 500 as the Midrash indicates) Jews left Egypt alive. Hence, what is the essence of the parent’s answer to the Rasha? Furthermore, is the Rasha’s question so bad? Don’t we all, at times, want to understand how another perceives religious events?
Part of the problem the Rasha faces in explaining why he/she excludes him/herself is the inability to relate to the Egyptian redemption. It is quite difficult to capture the power of the redemption merely from reading the same text year in and year out. The format leaves some people feeling dry or confused. For example, where does “Arami Oved Avi” fit into the story? Yes, we do explain the series of verses that are said when Bikkurim are brought. However, do those explanations really convey the spirit and essence of redemption from Egypt?
Perhaps the answer lies in the answer to the Rasha. If a person excludes him/herself, we, as a people, lose another voice. In other words, the Midrash might be teaching that the loss of Jews in Egypt is tragic in that we lose their voices, their stories. By attempting to scare the Rasha, we are telling him/her, “If you exclude yourself, we will lose your voice, just like the voices of people in Egypt, who for whatever reasons, also excluded themselves.” Pesach is the story of triumph over adversity, and while it contains a set format to explain how God redeems us, one of the most important elements is that the given text is not meant to be the be all and end all of everything we say that night. The stories of our past, triumph and tragedy, need telling.
The experience of redemption is both positive and negative. On the one hand, we, who include ourselves in the story, enhance it by telling our stories or other people’s stories. The negative part of Pesach is the feeling of loss that we, the Jewish people, have experienced throughout our history. We have lost people with stories, stories which could enhance our experiencing redemption. Nevertheless, we should not make our seder into another Tisha B’Av. Instead, we need to remember those who have suffered and continue to suffer for being Jewish. And we also need to remember how we do not suffer, how we are blessed, telling those stories. Pesach is the time for family stories, family reminiscing and of course, (at least this is what happens in my case) family debate, making the ancient redemption from Egypt relevant to our lives.