We are all familiar with the memorable description of the four sons who find themselves at the Pesach seder. This famous paragraph appears at the beginning of the Haggadah narrative and in many ways highlights its central educational message. I believe that determining the identity of the enigmatic wayward son will offer a fundamental insight into one of the major challenges facing the Jewish people and State of Israel today.
The Haggadah states as follows:
“The wayward son asks – What is this service to you? (Exodus 12;26) By saying ‘you’ he excludes himself. And since he excludes himself from the people of Israel (KIal Yisrael), he has denied a fundamental principle of our faith (Kofer be-Ikar). You in turn should blunt his teeth (give a sharp and blunt answer) and say to him – because of what Hashem did for me when I left Egypt, I do this (Exodus 13;8) – implying for me but not for him. If he (the wayward son) had been there (in Egypt), he would not have been redeemed?”
The Haggadah describes the wayward son as the one who sets himself apart from Jewish people and places himself outside Jewish community life. His question, “What is this service to you” implies that the service does not obligate him in any way. Issues of Jewish identity – our collective fate, destiny and responsibilities – are seen as something which has no bearing on him. So much so that the Haggadah uses the sharp terminology that since he has excluded himself from the Jewish people, he has denied a fundamental tenet of Jewish faith.
Remarkably, what emanates so succinctly from the Haggadah is the supreme importance of Jewish peoplehood. The community ethic is a core component of our identity and crucial to the meaning of Jewish life.
Pesach is the story of our people. It is where we explain to ourselves and our children what it means to be part of the collective Jewish experience. It is about the history of our people whose birth was forged in the houses of bondage, of mutual pain and suffering in Egypt, It is about our fate as a historic community. The crux of the Pesach story is sharing our common fate as a collective community and participating in the destiny of our people. Failure to embrace this reality excludes one from the Jewish community and therefore from being part of its destiny. Faith is not independent of fate and Judaism is not independent of the Jewish people. One cannot claim to be either a religious Jew or a universalist Jew without being intrinsically connected to the particular fate and fortune of our people.
This is particularly relevant to one of the great contemporary challenges facing the Jewish people in general and the State of Israel specifically. Over the last fifteen years we have seen a dangerous and systematic delegitimization campaign of the State of Israel, her defenders and supporters. A global movement has been galvanized to single out Israel unfairly and unjustly and brand it as an Apartheid State with a clear aim of undermining the moral foundations of her right to exist. This is a Machiavellian attempt to uproot any ethical, historic and spiritual rights of the Jewish people to a sovereign presence in our promised land.
What is most concerning is that some Jews are stridently siding with those who wish to uproot us. Some of these Jews such as Neturei Karta are emanating from the extreme religious right while others emanate from the opposite extreme secular left. These groupings form an unlikely and unholy alliance dedicated to the destruction of modern day Israel. Incredibly, these Jews claim to be proudly Jewish either through their religious or universalistic interpretation of their Jewish identity. Their tragic mistake though, is that they are excluding themselves from the fundamental tenet of the Jewish community ethic and from our distinct and collective historic experience as a people. They are the wayward sons of our generation who want Judaism without Jewish peoplehood, faith without fate, universalism without bonds of unity with their people.
Having identified the wayward son, we now need to understand the bewildering reality of why it is that the wayward son who denies a sense of camaraderie with the Jewish community, is at the Pesach seder in the first place? After all, if he is so wayward, why does he want to be part of the Jewish experience? The answer is clear – he does want to have a connection to his Judaism – but he wants this to be without any commitment to and embracing of a collective Jewish fate and destiny. But the Haggadah teaches us that he cannot claim to be a good Jew, while at the same time separating himself from the pain and suffering of his own people. Of course, every good Jew must be sensitive to the suffering of all human beings. All are created in the image of G-d. This is without question a core Jewish value. But how can this possibly override the suffering of his own family, community and people? Kindness and charity must never end in the home, but they most certainly begin there.
The answer given to the wayward son in the Haggadah is most telling. We blunt his sharp criticism by highlighting the following important point: “Had you been in Egypt you would not have been redeemed.” The wayward son needs to decide what side of Jewish history he is on. If his worldview does not contain this deep sense of Jewish peoplehood, then he has missed the point of Jewish identity. Our Sages tell us that many Jews chose not to leave Egypt, but rather lost themselves during the plague of darkness. These individual Jews could not come to terms with Moses’ vision of redemption from Egyptian society: to journey to the homeland of their forefathers and to exercise their divine, religious, historical and moral right to self-determination in their G-d given land. Those who left Egypt committed to this narrative. Those who chose to stay behind rejected it.
Remaining behind in Egypt and perhaps even prioritising the suffering of the Egyptians over the tears and pain of over 100 years of slavery and death of their own people at the hand of the Egyptians side-lined them from future Jewish destiny. Instead of becoming influential protagonists of Jewish history, they became a peripheral footnote.
We are encouraged by the fact that the wayward son is at the seder table. He does want to be part of Jewish history, but does not know how. He makes the fundamental mistake of not appreciating the inextricable link between our faith and our fate, between a Judaism of a religious or a universal nature and the Jewish people.
We, as his fellow Jews bear a responsibility to both embrace and educate him as to the salient importance of this eternal link.