Pesach Educating the Wicked Son: “Blunt his Teeth”

Nov 17, 2014

by Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, Shlita
Nisan 5772

Responding to the questions of the Four Sons at the Pesach Seder serves as a paradigm for educating our children – and ourselves.  Knowing how to give appropriate answers to the relevant questions of the wise son, the mocking questions of the wicked son, the most basic questions of the simple son, and the ignorance of the son who doesn’t even know how to ask – this is the challenge of every Jewish parent.  And these four sons represent more than four different children. Within each Jew resides a quality of each of these sons and their questions, and we are being taught the requisite responses.

The response to the wicked son raises a number of problems. I will suggest an interpretation that can have an important impact on our approach to Jewish education and to outreach.

“What is this service to you?” asks the wicked son. “What are these statutes and dictates that G-d has commanded you?” asks the wise son. The wicked son gets his teeth blunted, being told that he wouldn’t have been redeemed from the exile, simply because of the “to you”. Meanwhile, the wise son, who used the same “to you,” gets a detailed and respectful answer. I am sure the wicked son didn’t know what hit him. What was wrong with his question?

Also troubling is the reaction to the wicked son: “blunt his teeth.” What’s wrong with his teeth? If he spoke in a disrespectful manner, our response should be directed to his mouth or lips. And if his question was heretical, we should be attacking his mind. What do his teeth have to do with it? And why is the remedy to blunt them?

Finally, if he is such a wicked son, what is he doing at the seder, eating the Korban Pesach, the matzah and maror, and fulfilling all the mitzvot of the holiday?

I believe one can understand the wicked son as a Jew who is fulfilling all the commandments, with the same level of care as his other brothers. He has no ideological problem with Judaism or the Torah, and certainly not with the Pesach Seder. He actually enjoys it: it is inspirational, it connects him with his roots, it brings the family together.  His problem though is with the avodah, the requirement of service represented in those commandments, and which is central to Judaism. He is self-centered, making every decision based on what is good for him. He is constantly in pursuit of his personal gratification, whether it be physical pleasure and comfort, social status, or power.

So the foundation of his question is a challenge to the concept of service.  Viewing Judaism through the prism of his own agenda, there to assist him in accomplishing his personal goals, he asks, “What is this service to you?” What is the role of service in mitzva observance?

What is wrong with his approach to Judaism? Authentic Torah observance is built on good middot, excellence of character and selflessness. The foundation of our relationship to G-d is one of service and responsibility, altruism and giving. When the Gemara (Kiddushin 32b) looks to find a great virtue of G-d that can be emulated by man, it highlights G-d’s constant giving of resources to all who need them.  Proper human relations and mentschlechkeit is built on the recognition of our role in the world to selflessly serve and give, rather than to selfishly take.

The self-centered son sitting at the seder challenging the need for mitzvot to be performed as service is exposing the true foundation of his observance. The quest for self-gratification may lead to praiseworthy behavior.  But the foundation of this behavior is as fragile as it is selfish.  What is gratifying today may be frustrating tomorrow. What serves us well today may not be pleasurable or convenient next week.  The foundation of our Judaism has to be built on responsibility to our Creator, a giving personality, and a refined character.

What is the proper response to the self-centered person whose behavior is always motivated by self-interest? The Hagada tells us to “blunt his teeth.”

The Gemara in Bava Kama teaches us that one of the three categories of damages done by an animal is called “shein” (lit: tooth). This category of damages is identified as being motivated by a desire for enjoyment and pleasure (hana’ah l’hezeikah).

If “teeth” represents the desire for pleasure and enjoyment, “blunting the teeth” of the wicked son can be understood as teaching him to control this pursuit of self-indulgence. If his selfishness and desire for self-gratification can be tempered (blunted!), he will be open to the true purpose of the redemption – to enhance our ability to serve G-d. The wicked son, if he is self-centered, can’t understand the concept of “service.”  So his redemption would not serve its intended purpose.

As we prepare for the annual experience of freedom on Pesach, as we explore ways to better educate our children, as we work to bring estranged Jews closer to Torah, let us remember that the foundation of our Judaism has to be built on a commitment to service. “Blunting our teeth,” redirecting our self-centered aspirations to a life of giving and serving, is an imperative in today’s consumer culture.

The study of Pirkei Avoth during the weeks leading up to Shavuot teaches us that “Derech eretz kadmah l’Torah,” a refined character is a prerequisite to accepting Torah. Generosity, humility and simplicity are the qualities of Avraham Avinu that serve as the foundation of the Jewish people (Chapter. 5, Mishna 19). In our quest for higher standards in our Torah observance and growth, let us ensure that we are always building on healthy foundations.


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