Passover Sermon: Against the “Wicked Child”

by | May 10, 2024 | Latest News

This morning, I had a phone call with a former summer camper of mine. She is now a first-year student at George Washington University in DC, and she wanted to talk to me because she is beginning to explore the idea of becoming a rabbi. When I called at the time that we had agreed upon, she was walking from a classroom building back to her dorm room. A couple of minutes into our conversation, she said, “Sorry, it’s about to get loud – I’m walking by the encampment.” I could hear the noise of a megaphone, drumbeats, and whistles coming through the phone.

When more than 100 protesters against the war in Gaza were arrested at Columbia University on April 18, it sparked a response from college students across the country. The eruption of protests has disrupted exams and canceled graduation ceremonies. It has even prompted Brandeis, a historically Jewish university, to extend its admissions deadline for transfer students seeking, as the university’s president wrote, “an environment…free of harassment and Jew-hatred.” My former camper confirmed that it is frightening right now to be a Jewish college student, as some protesters openly endorse Hamas and spew antisemitic hatred at Jewish students. And yet, perhaps shockingly, there were some Jewish protesters who held their own Passover seders inside of the encampments. ABC News interviewed a Jewish protester at Yale, who said of her makeshift seder, “We as Jews have this idea of ‘tikkun olam’ — to repair the world… And that’s really a guiding principle for me … recognizing where there is injustice and suffering and working to repair it any way possible.”

On the one hand, I disagree with these campus protests, and I am extremely disheartened by Jewish students who align themselves with a protest movement that is actively platforming antisemitic speech. Chants at the campus protests include slogans such as “We are Hamas” and “Globalize the Intifada,” and protesters have reportedly shouted slurs at Jewish students and told them to “go back to Poland.” Such incendiary and hateful language must be unequivocally condemned.

On the other hand, I do not disagree with this Yale student’s definition of tikkun olam. For many young Jews today, including young Jews in our Reform movement and our local community, tikkun olam is a cornerstone of their Jewish identity. Passover is our holiday of liberation, through which we are compelled not only to remember the Exodus from Egypt, but also to confront injustice and suffering today. The Shalom Hartman Institute introduced their Haggadah supplement by writing, “Every year, we see ourselves in this story in a different way… In some [years], the words of the Haggadah feel more relevant; in others, the Haggadah’s proclamations clash with reality. How can we celebrate a holiday of freedom when over 100 people are still held captive in Gaza? How do we call for all who are hungry to come eat at our tables when so many Israelis are not at their own seder tables and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are on the brink of famine?” So many of us are asking these questions this Passover, even as we are answering them in radically different ways.

Of course, this, too, is part of our tradition. The four children have been a part of the Passover seder since at least the third century CE. A rabbinic text from that century, the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, reads: “There are four children: a wise one, a simple one, a wicked one, and one who does not know how to ask.” Three of these archetypal children are recognizable to us: there are children who are wise beyond their years, children who are straightforward and uncomplicated in how they see the world, and children who are too young to even ask the question. But a wicked child? Can a child really be wicked? The wicked child asks, “What is this ritual to you?” To you, and not to me or us. I have always been troubled by the response to the “wicked” child that the Haggadah offers: “‘Because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt,’ for me and not for you, because if you had been there, you would not have been redeemed.”

Over the past six months, I have been thinking about the so-called “wicked child.” I have seen such rhetoric within the Jewish world today. Bitter arguments between family members about Israel end in painful words, and then chilly silence. There have even been op-eds declaring that those who criticize Israel are “un-Jews,” no longer a part of our Jewish family. “This story, this struggle, is for me,” they say, “and not for you.” But I believe that no child can be wicked. I worry about the irreparable harm we might cause from within our Jewish community, even as we face a mounting crisis from without.

The Shalom Hartman Institute Haggadah supplement offers this approach to the wicked child: “In the months since October 7, many of us have become defensive and armored, even against our own families and friends. And then, when we are telling our story…. [the wicked child’s question] makes us snap… [But] was this child already wicked or is it their question that makes them so? Some children do choose to remove themselves from our collective story….. It is also possible they did not, but our answers, both our words and our frustration, showed them the door… The four children and particularly the wicked child remind us that we owe it to one another to find ways to communicate across our differences. Now is not the time to write people out of our shared story.”

This Passover, I am praying for so many things: for an end to the suffering of the Palestinian people, for the liberation of every last Israeli hostage, for the peace and freedom of all Jews worldwide. I also am praying that Jews everywhere can take this opportunity to abandon the notion of the wicked child. Even as we argue fiercely, even as we see the same event and respond in opposite ways, every single one of us belongs in our Jewish family. We may disagree, but we may not discard members of our community. We all have the responsibility to continue the conversation, and to strive to hear one another.

I want to close with “All Four (Are One),” a reading by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat which we read together at our Rockdale Temple seder on Tuesday:

“Today the Four Children are a Zionist,

a Palestinian solidarity activist, a peacenik, and

one who doesn’t know what to even dream.

The Zionist, what does she say? Two thousand years

we dreamed of return. ‘Next year in Jerusalem’

is now, and hope is the beacon we steer by.

The solidarity activist, what do they say?

We know the heart of the stranger. To be oppressors

is unbearable. Uplift the downtrodden.

The peacenik, what does he say? We both love this land

and neither is leaving. We’re in this together.

Between the river and the sea two peoples must be free.

And the one who doesn’t know what to even dream:

feed that one sweet haroset, a reminder that

building a just future has always been our call.

All of us are wise. None of us is wicked.

(Even the yetzer ha-ra is holy—without it

no art would be made, no future imagined.)

We are one people, one family. Not only

because history’s flames never asked what kind

of Jew one might be, but because

the dream of collective liberation is our legacy.

We need each other in this wilderness.

Only together can we build redemption.”

Madeline T. Budman is the rabbinic intern at Rockdale Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she delivered this sermon on April 26, 2024. She will be ordained on June 1.