Between wicked and wise

Between wicked and wise

Those of us who attended yeshiva elementary school in the 1970s may remember taking home a one-page guide to the seder, printed in purple-blue ink, in the days before Passover. (School handouts were cranked out with a distinctive dye by the rotating drum of a ditto machine.) The primer was memorably titled “Do It Right On Pesach Night.”

A sign of the burgeoning trend toward stricter, text-based halachic standards, “Do It Right” was a chart listing the minimum required amounts of matzah, maror, wine, and other seder foods. Some of the measurements were based on a maximalist – many would say erroneous – interpretation of the “olive”- and “egg”-based volumes mandated by the Talmud.

Passover is the only holiday during which the Bible requires symbolic foods, and along with the food an explanation of its symbolism. The Torah demands context and meaning, in the form of a spoken narrative, to accompany the ritual meal. The Haggadah provides a framework for the narrative.

Without the narrative, can you fulfill the requirement to eat matzah on the first night of Passover? Technically, the answer is yes. The Talmud says that even if someone is coerced into eating matzah, they have fulfilled the mitzvah. But this is a problematic idea. Rabbi Gamliel, cited in the Mishnah and Haggadah, takes the seemingly contradictory position that “whoever has not discussed these three things on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: The paschal sacrifice, matzah, and marror.” Presumably, this means that a seder without narrative content is worthless.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik reconciles these positions by distinguishing between the fulfillment of two separate religious duties by means of eating matzah. (See “Festival of Freedom,” an anthology of his lectures and essays on Passover.) By merely ingesting it, he says, you indeed have fulfilled the basic obligation of eating matzah on Passover. However, the Torah also requires us to re-enact the exodus by means of symbolic foods and reading the Haggadah. Without the narrative of freedom spoken and demonstrated at the meal, the experiential, rather than technical, requirement will remain unfulfilled.

The tension between these obligations, between outward performance and inner meaning, is represented, I believe, by the Haggadah’s wise and wicked sons.

The four sons are typologies. Each one of us is a mixture – in proportions that vary over time and circumstances – of the idealized “sons” called wise, wicked, simple, and silent.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin – the Netziv – describes the wicked son as someone who dismisses unexplained religious ritual out of hand. For this son, meaning is the sole measure of the religious act. He cannot bring himself to join his family on Passover before he rationalizes every part of the seder. Rather than an outright rejection of the ritual, his question, “What is this service to you?” is a challenge to his parents and teachers to provide substance to the trappings of an annual holiday meal. He really is asking, “What does this service mean to you? What should it mean to me? Why, year after year, should I go through these motions?

“And if you cannot answer these questions, don’t bother saving me a seat.”

We might, in fact, admire the wicked son’s idealism. He cannot accept a religion that revolves around technicalities, measurements, mechanical performance, and social conformism. His philosophical purism, however, is self-serving and unsustainable. Failing to find the narrative in the ritual, he abandons both. Because his commitment to tradition is contingent on his own intellectual satisfaction, the wicked son fails his religious community – and ultimately himself.

The wise son, in extreme contrast, appears to be focused exclusively on the rules. His only interest is to learn “the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments” (Deuteronomy 6:20) required at the seder.

This son is preoccupied with the seder’s technology: Which brand of matzah was prepared under the most radical strictures? How many ounces will satisfy the (implausibly large) “olive” of some halachic authorities and within how many seconds must the matzah be eaten? While his punctiliousness may derive from genuine religious devotion, he has neglected the narrative of freedom, an equally essential obligation of the seder. He may be wise, but nobody said he was perfect.

The wise son’s overall approach to religion is consistent with his behavior at the seder. His question, in its original context, follows a passage about all the mitzvot: “Be sure to keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies, and his statutes, which he has commanded you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord . . .” (Deut. 6:17-18).

While his curiosity is stimulated by first verse – his question addresses the testimonies, statutes, and other formal religious acts – the wise son does not ask a single question about how to perform the “right and good,” a sweeping and subjective religious standard. Nachmanides writes that the “right and good” is a catchall for proper interpersonal behaviors, since the Torah could not possibly have listed them all. While this standard cannot be measured or timed, or defined on a chart, it is the underlying narrative of a truly pious life.

Doing the right and good – within the framework of the commandments, statutes, and judgments – is how to “do it right,” on Pesach night and beyond.

(This column is dedicated to the memory of Yossi Huttler, of blessed memory, whose poetry added beauty and depth to every Jewish holiday.)