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It comes to us from a deep thinker, the Hasidic sage Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856–1926) better known as the “Shem MiShmuel,” after the title of his collected observations on the Torah.
He points to something puzzling and thus pregnant with meaning.
The questions attributed to each of the Haggadah’s Four Sons come from the Torah’s text. The Wicked Son’s question, “What is this service to you?” is in Exodus 12:26.
When your child asks that question, Moses tells our ancestors, “you should reply, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to Hashem, for He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, and He saved our houses.’”
Hearing that, the Torah relates, “the people kneeled and prostrated themselves.” Rashi explains “at the news of the children.”
Surprisingly, Bornstein notes, that’s the question that will become the Wicked Son’s that is receiving all that adulation. What were the people so thankful for? The news that they would sire wicked descendants? Wouldn’t they have better saved their gratitude for hearing about the Wise Son, or even the simple one?
He explains: The rejoicing was at the news that there will be future wicked sons whose questions will demand our responses — that even such Jews will, despite their actions, be part and parcel of the people.
When we were just a family of individuals, before the Exodus, each member of the Jewish family stood or fell on his own merits. Ishmael was Abraham’s son and Esau was Isaac’s. But neither they nor their descendants merited to become part of the Jewish people.
After the Exodus, though, even a “wicked son,” our ancestors were informed, is a full member of the group, no matter how he acts. That represented a radical change. The people had become a nation. The passage through the Red Sea was a birthing — the newborn klal yisrael, the people of Israel
No wonder, Bornstein says, that the people rejoiced.
That truth is one we would do well to remember at our Seders as we consider the Second Son. Even the rasha’s contemporary counterparts, however we conceive of them — and all the more so those we simply regard as insufficiently connected to Jewish tradition and observance — are inseparable parts of us. We may lament their choices, but Passover’s message is that we should be elated they are all at the table.
Avi Shafran blogs at rabbiavishafran.com and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs.