The Passover haggadah has a particular focus on questions – including delving into who is doing the asking and how the questions are posed. Attitude is everything, and how we respond to challenging questions raised by our children can make a tremendous difference. At the seder, when we read the quotes attributed to the Chacham (wise) and Rasha (evil) sons, there really doesn’t appear to be that much difference in what they are saying. Here are the two questions:
“What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that God has commanded to you?”
“What is this service of yours?!”
The classic interpretation is that the Rasha, in describing the service as “yours,” is not including himself. Yet, the Chacham also uses the second person in phrasing his question. I think the wise son, by asking a more detailed question, appears to show genuine interest, while the rebellious son is seen as just throwing down the gauntlet to be challenging.
Genuine, deep intellectual interest is great. We should definitely strive to foster a home where our children can ask difficult questions and get answers at a very high level. Yet let’s be honest, it is completely normal for good kids to provoke like the Rasha and it is disastrous when we respond in like manner.
Over the years, I have found that when my children throw down the gauntlet and attack a ritual or practice that I hold dear, if I respond caustically or with anger, it doesn’t do any good. In camp counselor parlance, we call that regressive pull. We are sucked into arguing with our 14 year old as if we too are 14. We also buy into it being a mano a mano wrestling match with him or her. My personal experience is that with children and staff members we can probably win a few of these tests of wills, especially in the short run, but in the long term it isn’t effective.
I think in this case, it is better to answer the Rasha as if he/she had asked the same question as the Chacham. This isn’t about the intellectual ability or maturity of the child, like the “simple” child or “the one who does not know how to ask.” Both the Rasha and the Chacham are smart enough and old enough to engage in an intellectual conversation. It is better not to rise to the bait and get angry, but rather answer with love and patience. Instead of creating a test of wills (which might have been the child’s goal), by not becoming angry, you can turn the discussion back to the content. Often, that is all it takes.
All of us have played the roles of all four children. When dealing with the challenging child, let us remember that we are playing the long game and that if we provide our children with knowledge and let them know it isn’t about a personal test of wills, then we increase the likelihood that over time they will make an informed and mature decision. By being a role model on taking the seder discussions and all their questions seriously, we have the best shot at passing on our values systems to our children.
May your seders be full of meaningful discourse. Chag sameach.