The Spoiler at the Passover Seder

The Spoiler at the Passover Seder

In a number of plays and movies, the central theme is a family holiday celebration, sometimes Thanksgiving, at other times Christmas.  Among the gathered family is a son, daughter or relative carrying a deep grudge.  Through their acid comments, they bring to the surface submerged hatreds and bitterness that poison the celebration.  For Jewish families the holiday celebration par excellence is the Passover Seder.  Here, too, there is often a spoiler.

At our family Passover Seder the spoiler was my uncle Dave, my father’s brother-in-law.  He was a member of the American Communist Party until, as the family never stopped reminding him, he bought his first apartment building. Uncle Dave then exchanged Marxist dialectic materialism for plain, old fashioned Capitalist materialism. The only remnant of his former Communist allegiance was his antipathy to religion.  It was particularly religious ritual which he dubbed nonsensical and irrational..

Dave made his views clear to my father, the Master of the Seder, a learned modern Orthodox Rabbi, with a University of Chicago graduate education. Dave’s arguments stirred up controversy all around the Seder table.  When my father gently sought to reply to Dave’s arguments, my uncle pulled out his hearing aid and hilarity convulsed all the guests at the Seder table.

As childhood memories of family Seders surface before Passover, it seems to me that our Rabbis, who created the Passover Haggadah, were keenly aware of spoilers at Passover Seders.  So they included one among the four sons and called him the Rasha, the evil son.  What makes the Rasha, the evil son a spoiler?  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his Haggadah commentary suggests two motivating factors. The wayward son may have had a faulty education.  In addition, says Rabbi Hirsch, there is the tendency of sons and daughters to challenge the authority of parents. It is part of the process of maturation and self independence.  This is particularly the case where the culture at large, as in Hirsch’s time, attracts young people away from the life style and traditions of parents.

From our contemporary experiences, we can add to Hirsch’s commentary.  The sons and daughters of rabbis sometime rebel against the restrictions of Jewish observance of which they are supposed to be exemplars.  It is particularly difficult for them in a highly secularized Jewish community where Jewish observance is minimal or non-existent.  Then, there are the negative experiences that some people have had with Jewish religious authorities, including abuse in some cases, rare as that may be.

How do we relate to spoilers?  The Hasidic commentators on the Haggadah, including Breslov and Habad, are most insightful.  They remind us that there is a bit of spoiler in  each of us.  They emphasize that the Rasha is also part of kelal Yisrael, of the Jewish people and also has a part in God’s plan.  Such an individual must be treated with respect, with kindness, and if it is a child or family member, with great love. At the same time the Rasha’s views must be challenged gently but firmly.  The phrase in the Haggadah “hakheh et shinav”, dull his (or her) teeth, i.e., answer bluntly, is interpreted in some Hasidic sources as remove the sharpness of the bite by sweetening the mouth. I still remember as a young boy how my father took me aside after the Seder and instructed me that Uncle Dave had a very difficult life in Europe and in this country and was to be treated with great respect, kindness and love as a member of our family.  A joyours Pesah to everyone.


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About Rabbi Joseph Schultz, PhD

Dr. Joseph Schultz served as Rabbi for congregations in Brookline, MA, Norwich, CT and Cambridge, MA. Dr. Schultz founded the Jewish Studies Program at Boston University where he was Assistant Professor of Religion and at the University of Missouri-Kansas City where he was Oppenstein Brothers Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies. He helped establish the Center for Religious Studies in 1996, a consortium of six colleges, theological schools and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, offering an interdisciplinary graduate program for the PhD in Religious Studies. Dr. Schultz was its first director.

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