Reframing the Wicked Child: Questions for the seder table
Since I was young, I’ve never liked the story of the Four Children. Why does the wicked child get the villain edit for asking an honest question, while the try-hard wise child gets praised for uncritically upholding the status quo?
My real gripe is that instead of encouraging dialogue, the responses to the Four Children’s questions effectively end the conversation. How might we rewrite the script to keep the conversation flowing?
We know the story:
The wise child asks, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and laws which Adonai our God has commanded you?” The textual response is to teach this child the laws and rituals of the Passover seder.
The wicked child asks, “What does this mean to you?” For this, the child is cooly reprimanded for alienating and excluding themselves from the collective seated around the table — “It is for what Adonai has done for me.”
The simple child asks, “What does this mean?” In return, they get the TL;DR of the story of Exodus: “It was with a mighty hand that God brought us our from Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Ex 13:14)
And for the child who does not know how to ask, we must “open the conversation.”
Every piece of human knowledge began with a question. Yet only one child, the one who does not know enough to ask, is encouraged to continue to question.
This year, I wonder how else we might respond to the Four Children?
For the wise child (who I would rename the rule-follower), perhaps we can ask, “What gives laws their power? What makes them just or unjust?”
For the wicked child (maybe better called rebellious), we might ask, “What do freedom and community mean to you?”
For the simple child (who is still learning), after explaining the purpose of the seder, we can help them to make the connection between history and modern life by asking, “What do we learn from this story today?”
For the child who does not know how to ask, we should think about why they might be silent. Do they truly not have a question, or is the atmosphere around the table too contentious, impatient, or just hungry for them to feel free to speak? For this child, it is our responsibility to co-create an atmosphere where we can disclose we do not know.
In a way, none of the children really know how to ask. And these children will grow up into adults who still do not know how to ask. More or less, we are those adults. The parallels to today’s discourse are easy to make. In a culture that rewards solving problems and always having the correct answer, our abilities to ask rewarding questions and find the correct problems are degraded.
Around the world, we can observe the patterns of two sides entrenched in their own worldviews and their own sets of facts. It’s easy to point fingers and call the other side wicked.
Instead of lamenting, “How can they be so wrong?” Maybe it’s time to ask a different question.
April 4, 2023 Questions Passover