Now that we’ve entered the month of Nisan, it’s time to begin delving into the Haggadah as we prepare for Passover. Since I’ll be away for Pesah, I’ll be teaching about the holiday this Shabbat and next. My own preparation for this year has been with the help of the haggadah commentary of the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna (1720-1798), and his son Avraham (1766-1808).
One of the best-known sections of the seder is the discussion of the Four Children–wise, wicked, simple and unasking. In three places in the Torah, we are instructed to be instructors–to educate the next generation about the Exodus. In three places, the Torah anticipates that children will ask questions. That sets up a natural formula for presenting the dynamic. Three children ask a particular question, each a quote from the Torah. Each child is answered, while the fourth, who doesn’t know how to ask, is taught preemptively, and all answers are quotes from the Torah. Simple, right? Well, not so much.
The question the haggadah puts in the mouth of the wicked child is a quote from Exodus 12:26: “What is this service to you?” In the verse that follows immediately, the Torah gives us a formulaic answer: “Say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, Who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote Egypt, and saved our houses” (12:27). But there’s a problem, because in our haggadah, this child is given a different answer, quoting a different verse (Exodus 13:8): “It is because of this that the LORD did for me when I went out of Egypt.” And then the father is to continue, “‘For me,’ but not for him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.”
This is a curious development worth exploring. On Shabbat morning, we will look at the Vilna Gaon’s explanation of the haggadah’s language, and we’ll see how his lesson might be applied in a contemporary case of addressing wickedness.