"Arami Oved Avi" and the Wicked Child
Here are two more questions that should be asked at the Seder table: First, why is it that along with the wise child, the simple child, and the child who doesn't know how to ask we include the wicked child? Even if the number four is essential to the symmetry, certainly the Sages could have come up with an alternative to wickedness? And if they still chose a wicked child, what are we to surmise from their choice?
by Shlomo Riskin
Secondly, the heart of the Haggadah narrative is an expansion and explication of a specific narrative in the Torah, Arami Oved Avi, the speech of the festival of the first fruits (Shavuot: "An Aramean nomad was my father (Jacob), and he went down to Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty and populous..." Deut. 26:5 ). Effectively, the Haggadah has now been focused upon a specific, historic moment in time, the birth of the Jewish people.
But since context is often as important as content, why should the Haggadah have chosen a historic-minded quote that emerges not from the events directly, but rather from the passage that the farmer was commanded to recite when he brought the first fruits to Jerusalem. "When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance... you shall take the first of all the fruit of the earth... and you shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose... And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God, an Aramean nomad was my father..." (Deut. 26:1-5). Clearly the text wants to make a connection between the Haggadah and this moment when the farmer enters Jerusalem. But would it not have been simpler, and more direct, if the Haggadah had quoted from the events in Exodus which initially recount the slavery and the exodus, rather than turn to the commandment of first fruits in the latter part of Deuteronomy in which the drama of the exodus is only mentioned as background?
These two questions emerge from seemingly different directions, but the answers will attest to how closely they are connected.
The basic Hebrew word haggadah comes from the Biblical command, "And you shall tell your child..." testifying to the fact that the major Seder experience comes out of the communication between the generations, parents and children in dialogue. Moreover, the pedagogic motif of the inter-generational transmission is by question and answer, parents to children and children to parents, and respect inherent in such communication. Indeed, the Torah itself sets up this manner of dialogue "And it shall come to pass when your children shall say unto you, what mean you by this service?" (Ex. 12:26). Or, "And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, what is this...?" (Ex. 13:14).
This motif of parent-child dialogue also serves as a prototype for how Israel was supposed to understand their relationship to God. Unlike other peoples who had to beseech, bribe, or hoodwink their gods, the God of the Israelites is essentially a God who functions like a parent.
The Israelites are His children, and the way He cares for His flock is with the gentleness of a parent. Ancient Babylonians, Egyptians and Chaldeans did not think of themselves as the Children of Babylon or the Children of Chaldea in relation to their gods. But the Israelites did, and do. The unique bond between parents and children at the Seder reflects the unique bond between God and the children of Israel. And what is really unique to the parent-child relationship, different from husband-wife or master-servant, is its irrevocability; parent can never be severed from child. Throughout the Bible, we are spoken of not only as God's children but also as God's firstborn. "Israel is holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his increase, all that devour him shall be held guilty" (Jeremiah 2:3).
Keeping this in mind, we can understand better why the Haggadah begins with Arami Oved Avi. Just as the farmer brings his first fruits to the priest to present to God, albeit on the Festival of Shavuot, so we too present ourselves, God's first fruits, on the night of the Seder, our birthday as a nation. At the same time that every parent becomes reunited with his children through the Seder dialogue, we become reunited with our Parent in Heaven. And Shavuot is linked to Passover organically not only through our explication of the Arami Oved Avi, but also through the counting of seven weeks, forty-nine days, every evening between these festivals. Indeed our Sages refer to Shavuot as Atzeret, the conclusion of Passover. The special biblical book which we read on Shavuot, the Book of Ruth, is also linked to the "children" of the Passover Seder, and especially to the wicked child.
The heroine of this marvelous book is the Moabite Ruth, who converts to Judaism with the immortal words, "your nation is my nation, your God is my God," and becomes the progenitor of the King-Messiah.
And the life of Ruth is more than just a successful example of conversion; it is a story of faith in the ultimate return of our children, no matter how wicked they may appear to be. Moab was originally the son born to an incestuous relationship between Lot, nephew and adopted son of Abraham, and his daughters. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot's daughter believed that the whole world had been destroyed, and she began to repopulate that world with her father's seed, Mo-Ab, from father.
But Lot is not only a partner to an act of incest. He left the father Abraham who adopted, loved and taught him, over an argument between his and Abraham's shepherds, and he chose to live in the Las Vegas-like city of sin, Sodom. He was indeed an ungrateful and wicked son. Nevertheless, the Bible documents how, with cosmic patience, the seed of Lot, in the person of Ruth, returns to the faith of her great grand-father Abraham and becomes the mother of the Messiah. Indeed, the redemption will come when, as Elijah foresees, "the hearts of the parents will return to the children, and the children to the parents" (Malakhi 3:23). The circuit is now completed, Lot has returned to Abraham, the wicked son's descendant becomes the beloved king of Israel.
When we gather around the seder, link Passover to the Festival of the First Fruits and include the wicked child, we are saying that the promise of history is that no matter how wicked our sons have become, how far our children have wandered off, stuck in the worst tragedies of self-deception, ultimately they will return. After all, we are God's first fruits, and, given time, the lost children of Abraham will eventually return to their parents and to their Parent-in-Heaven.
This essay has been excerpted from the Ann Belsky Moranis edition of "A Haggadah Happening: An Artistic Passover Haggadah with a Traditional yet Contemporary Commentary". For more information on how to obtain this Haggadah, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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