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Personalizing the Four Children

Published in Ayeka by Jeff Amshalem
Posted on April 7, 2020

Rabban Gamliel has a famous statement in the Passover Haggadah (taken from Mishna Pesachim) that “In every generation, a person must see him/herself as having gone out of Egypt.” This has always seemed to me to be the essence of the Seder, but for years it remained in the realm of ideas for me. I have been to and led many Seders that talked about this imperative, without ever knowing how to actually heed its advice. Since learning the Ayeka methodology I’ve been able to take the entire Haggadah and make each text personal for myself and hopefully my fellow participants. Today I’d like to share how I personalized one text, the Four Children, and specifically the passage on the Rasha or Wicked Child.

       Even before recent changes in modern sensibilities around parenting, Jews have been taken aback by the seemingly harsh response of the Haggadah to the Wicked Child — its advice is to “blunt his teeth” or “set his teeth on edge” and tell him that if he had been in Egypt he would not have been redeemed. Many sensitive and creative interpretations of this passage have been offered, but first of all let’s ask, what does the Haggadah even mean when it says “set his teeth on edge”? The language is actually borrowed from an ancient folk saying recorded in the prophets (Jeremiah 31:29, Ezekiel 18:2): “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge.” Having your teeth “set on edge,” then, is that wretched pang in your mouth when you pop what looks like a sweet grape into your mouth and instead you get a sour one. What’s unusual is that, in this case, it happens to you because your parents ate the sour grape. The prophets promise that in the future redemption this won’t happen anymore: parents will stop passing on their negative experiences to their children.

The wicked children at Seder tables across the world (or inside of us!) are acting wickedly because someone in the previous generation has passed on some negative experience of their own. They don’t want to participate in the Seder because they are reacting to something in the way the elder generation raised them or taught them.

In the Hagaddah’s model, the elder generation reacts to that, shaming them and excluding them, and they are left unredeemed. The Haggadah’s response to the Wicked Child asks us to take a reckoning of our own “sour grape” experiences and transform them from something that sets the Child’s teeth on edge into something redemptive. Here’s one way we might go about doing that:

Ask yourself: 

  1. Can you think of an experience you had growing up Jewish that you still carry with you, that may be negatively impacting the way you live today and/or relate to others?
  2. How can you transform this past experience into an opportunity for learning and growth? 
  3. Name one concrete, actionable step you can take to redeem this experience and bring it into your life in a positive way, for your own sake and the sake of those around you.

Chag Kasher Samayach V’Bari