The pesach seder is often looked at as a model for how we should educate our children. We use experiential models that date back thousands of years and add in parts to the seder just to get our children interested and engaged. However, many of us are troubled when we get to the part of the haggadah that deals with the four sons. Three of the sons make sense to us intuitively. The smart son, who asks the right questions and cares a great deal about the excitement of the seder. The simple son who just wants to know what’s going on. And the son who doesn’t even know how to ask questions, whom we draw into the conversation.
The four sons
These three sons are relatable, and may even correspond to parts of our own personalities. However, when it comes to the fourth son, the wicked son, we are all dumbfounded. He asks a simple question, and then we are told to whack him in the mouth! What kind of educational model is that?
With a closer look, a different question comes to the reader of the haggadah: If he is such a rasha, why did he come to a pesach seder?
I hate you. Don’t leave me
One of the central themes in marriage and family therapy is that people often don’t know how to express their emotions. When they want closeness, but don’t know how to tell others that, they often exhibit what is referred to as a secondary emotion like anger or frustration. In general, the assumption is that anger or frustration are superficial manifestations of a deeper emotion like loneliness or abandonment.
For example, often when a spouse is at work for a long day and then comes home and needs to unwind, their spouse will feel lonely. Even if the one working was doing so for the noblest of reasons and really needs to unwind, the spouse who was home all day may still feel neglected for a host of reasons. What happens next is critical. The lonely spouse may lash out at their partner and exclaim that they are never home and don’t love them or make time for them. The screaming and yelling is really a cry for closeness, but it comes across as anger or frustration. Because we don’t know what we’re really feeling, we emote a biting anger.
Essential relationship lesson from how we respond to the wicked son
If we look closely at the language used in regard to the rasha, the “wicked son,” we are told הקהה את שיניו, which is an obscure phrase. The same root word, קהה, is used in Ecclesiastes 10:10, meaning to dull a blade. If we apply that idea to the rasha, we are saying “dull the attack of the rasha”. After all, if he is coming to the seder, what that means is that he is searching for closeness. His antagonistic questioning is his way of saying he wants closeness. We are instructed not to turn away the rasha, but to embrace and “dull his teeth,” to soften his attack. We are told to welcome him to the seder and to reinterpret his attack as a desire for connection.
The seder is a paradigm for family connection, bringing in the stranger, and passing on traditions. The haggadah teaches us that when someone approaches with harshness, we must assess and reassess if it is truly anger, or if there is really something else going on. Let us use this Pesach as an opportunity to connect and show more love to others.