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    The fate of the Wicked Son

    Amongst the most loved sections of the Seder is the story of the four sons, the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who knows not how to ask.

    The wise and wicked sons, as depicted in the Szyk Haggadah

    The word “son” is not to be taken too literally. It really indicates a human type. All varieties of human beings are needed in society, even the “wicked sons” who are known for their negativity.

    It’s not nice to be called a “wicked son”, an outsider such as Pharaoh, Haman or Titus, or one of the more modern rebels, or one of the people we know. We are all like Miss Marple who always knew someone in St. Mary Mead who resembles a character in one of Agatha Christie’s cases.

    The most famous rasha of Jewish history is the second son in the Haggadah. He takes many forms, proving that there are people perceived as wicked in every generation.

    The rasha pictures in illustrated Haggadahs depict villains that range through Roman soldiers; Russian Cossacks, often with a dog; a materialist with a monocle; a Maskil (a proponent of the often irreligious Enlightenment); an old atheist; or a teenage dropout (as in more recent Haggadot). All share the characteristic that it wasn’t outside factors that made them “wicked” but their own misguided choice.

    In the Haggadah’s list of sons, the rasha is an “odd man out”. The wise son is a role model; the third (“simple”) son can’t help himself; the fourth son (“he who knows not how to ask”) will eventually mature. But the rasha will always be with us.

    What are we meant to do with him? The Haggadah says, “blunt his teeth” and insists that if he had been alive in the age of slavery, “he would not have been redeemed”. If he had been a Hebrew slave in ancient Egypt, he would have stayed there.

    In its commentary on the four sons, the Baruch SheAmar has a different view; it says that God would have struck dead all the wicked sons, who would thereby lose their chance of redemption.

    What is the rasha’s wickedness?
    Religious – he denies fundamental tenets.
    Intellectual – he does not ask but tells.
    Social – he mocks family tradition.
    Psychological – he is eaten up by his negativity.
    Ethical – he undermines the community.
    Behavioural – he is a rebel and non-conformist.
    Theological – he leaves God out of history.

    The rasha’s punishment is “blunt his teeth”. Not that this means to hit him: it is a metaphor for “rebut his argument”. If he sticks to his guns, intellectual honesty would keep him from the Seder; but blunting his teeth means that he finds his match.

    In the past he would have been left behind, but in real time he can’t stay away. Something in him still wants to be there. As the old phrase has it, he can’t overcome his gut feeling of identity. Eventually he will be won over.

    I somehow like the rasha. He has spirit and a mind of his own. The wicked son has to be himself. He accepts nothing on trust, nor automatically obeys instructions.

    “What does this service mean to you?” he demands (Ex. 12:26-27), implying, “To you – not to us”. I know that according to the Biblical commentators, he gets punished for saying “to you”. But – strangely – the wise son also says “to you” (Deut. 6:20-21), and no-one thinks of rebuking him! Why give the wicked son such a rough ride for saying “to you”?

    Compare his words with those of the wise son and you have the answer.

    Says the rasha: “What is this service to you?” Says the wise son, “What are the laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” The wise son mentions God whilst the wicked son leaves Him out. To the wise son, all is from God, even the difficult things. The rasha doesn’t bring God into the reckoning.

    How did Pesach come to be, according to his reasoning? Presumably it just happened: its source is sociology or anthropology, not religion. That’s the “denial of a fundamental principle” of which the wicked son is guilty.

    Imagining the world can manage without God, that’s his offence. He is a secularist for whom God is irrelevant, though as our age has shown, his view is a god that has failed.

    Do I still like the rasha? Certainly… but I would be the first to try and persuade him that he is wrong.

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