Calling out the Narrator
At the Seder, we read about Four Children: one is called wise, one wicked, one simple and one, we are told, does not know how to ask. These children are labeled based on the questions they ask and the narrator’s belief about what is driving those questions.
The first child is called wise because his question “what are the testimonies, statues and laws that God, our Lord, has commanded you?” is taken to demonstrate his commitment to following the practices and customs in the way that his community does. This child, according to the narrator of the text, is to be praised and instructed on the proper proceedings.
The second child is called wicked because her question “what is this service to you?” is taken as a rebuke of her community. The narrator of this text interprets her question as coming from someone who sees herself as outside of the community and for this she is reprimanded and condemned to a fate without the possibility of redemption.
The third and fourth children are neither praised nor scorned. Their respective question, “what is this?” and silence are accepted and responded to with a general refrain that aims to give them enough information to remain engaged in the ritual practice.
In first studying this text I was struck by the harsh singling out of the child that is called wicked. “What is this service to you?” seems like quite an innocent question, a question of curiosity, a question seeking deeper meaning and personal connection. Why, then, is the narrator so offended by this question that they must treat this child so harshly? Why do we take for granted the narrator’s presumption that this child see herself as being outside of the community?
As I began asking these questions I discovered that many people had not previously considered the narrator to be a character in this text – so powerful is the voice of the narrator that we fail to see that it is even there, telling us how to read the intentions of the other characters, telling us who to praise and who to scorn. But to me, the narrator is the text’s central character. The narrator is the authoritative voice that frames and interprets what we see and hear.
Because we grow up with the narrator’s voice in our heads we believe that this child, who is doing nothing more than asking a challenging question, is excluding herself from the community. We begin to believe that anyone in our community who asks challenging questions must be somehow turning their back on us. As a community, we marginalize voices of dissent. More than that, we quiet the dissenting voices inside ourselves out of fear that they will not be heard, accepted or validated. We fear that if we say an unpopular thing, if we challenge the main stream way of thinking, we will be alienated from the community, we will be called wicked. So often, and especially in moments that hold the most tension, we stay quiet, swallowing our questions, alienating ourselves.
Perhaps, if we recognize what the narrator is doing, perhaps if we recognize the source of these voices in our heads, we could question the assumptions at the core of the stories that don’t sit well with us, we could discover new interpretations of these texts, and through them we could discover new things about ourselves.
Wrestling with the Text
There are many interpretations of the story of the four children. Some say that the children symbolize different stages of development that each of us go through in our lives. Some see this story as demonstrating a very early progressive view on education telling us to look at the individual needs of each of our children and teach them accordingly. But none of these interpretations address the struggle I have with the basic premise of the characterization of this one child as wicked and the real life repercussions that such a characterization has for the Jewish community.
I have also read an account of this story where this child is called rebellious and is praised. This I find dissatisfying as well because it does not actually address the problematic characterization of this child as wicked, it simply changes the story.
When we come up against something in our culture, in our history, that does not sit well with us, I do not want to simply change the story, to brush the problematic text under the rug. I want to engage the problematic text, I want to wrestle with it, I want to be made uncomfortable by the customs and beliefs that my ancestors came up with to survive in a harsher world than the one I was born into. I want to search for their wisdom and argue with them where I think that they faltered. I want to discover wisdom in their writing that they themselves may not have even recognized.
Yes, changing the story stops sending the children at the table the message that if they ask an unpopular question they will be chastised, but it does not address the fact that this message has been sent, has taken root in our collective consciousness. Is not the child who grows up thinking they are rebellious and should be praised being set up for disappointment when she finds out that the rest of the community sees her as wicked?
Let us presume for a moment that the narrator is a character in this text and, like all characters, has a point of view, an agenda. The narrator, I would argue, is a stand in for the community, more specifically for the authoritative voice in the community, the establishment, the status quo.
The narrator’s function in the story is to maintain order at the Seder. When the first child asks about rituals and procedures the narrator is pleased because this question moves us along in the program. The answers to this question can be found in the text and so the narrator deems this child wise.
Moments later, the second child asks “what is this service to you?”. This is a personal question, a question of meaning, a question seeking a deeper connection with those of whom it is asked. It is a question whose answer cannot be found in the text, rather it is a question for the soul. It is a question that asks the community to defend their beliefs, to express the personal connection that they feel with the rituals and practices in which they are engaged. It is a question that holds up a mirror and asks us to look at who we are in relation to who we want to or claim to be.
But the community does not want to face this mirror so the narrator calls this child wicked and claims that it is she that is creating the separation.
A Seat at the Table
As someone who identifies with placing meaning over practice, with spirit over law, I too have been cast aside. I too have been called wicked because of the questions I ask, the assumptions that I challenge. I too have been seen as an outsider in my community and told that it is I who have put myself there.
For many years I carried anger over this text. How could a text that treats a character I identify with so badly be part of a ritual that I identify with so much?
And then it occurred to me that despite the narrator’s condemnation of this child, despite the characterization of this child as wicked and the proclamation that this child is not to be redeemed… every year, when passover comes around, this child is invited back to the Seder. This child is given a seat at the table and the opportunity to ask her question. No, the question will not be received well by the narrator – establishment voices are not supposed to welcome challenges, it’s not what they do. But the narrator, powerful as his voice may be, cannot, after all these years, keep the child he deems wicked away from the Seder. He cannot stop her from asking her question and he cannot stop the other children, the ones who are perhaps not yet ready to speak, from hearing what she has to say.
A Path Towards Redemption
The world is feeling a little unstable right now. I doubt I am the only one who does not quite know what to do with all that I am feeling, with all that I am thinking, with all that I am worried about. In times like these, voices like the narrator of this story get louder. Whether those voices come from politicians, leaders of establishment institutions, or inside our own heads, they keep us from asking the difficult questions, they keep us from examining why it is that we do what we do (think what we think, believe what we believe) and they keep us from remembering the importance of the personal connections we have with our stories and with each other.
It is, therefore, more important than ever that the wicked child keeps her seat at the table. As we enter the week of passover, a week where Jews around the world celebrate our ancient liberation and our current freedom, let us pay extra attention to the voices of the “wicked children” among us, the voices that challenge our thinking, that ask us to question the assumptions we carry, that hold up a mirror that which we may not want to face. Let us spend this passover wrestling with questions of meaning that might make us uncomfortable.
What does this service mean to you? What does it mean to you to be celebrating our freedom while our country is dropping bombs on people across the world? What does it mean to you to be celebrating our ancient liberation from Mitzrayim while bombs are going off in Egypt? What does it mean to you to live with freedom in a society that knows oppression? And, perhaps most importantly, what is there to learn from the act of sitting with loved ones and wrestling with a thousands year old text about a thousands year old story that you can apply towards the project of building a better world today?