Parshat Metzora (Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel –“And He shall restore the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Mal. 3:24)
This coming Sabbath—at least as far as the rabbinical homily (drashah) before the festival of Passover is concerned—is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath. In a usual calendar year, when there are at least several days between the Sabbath and Passover, we read on Shabbat Hagadol the prophetic portion from Malachi, who speaks of the “great and awesome day” which will precede the redemption. It is actually Elijah the prophet who will herald this day, and Elijah’s major task will be “to restore the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents.
Apparently our prophet understood that the major issue facing each and every one of us is discord within the family, and if the period of redemption will be one of harmony and love such rapprochement must begin with parent-child relationship. However, there is one strange note within this verse: The fifth commandment ordains that children honor their parents, yet Malachi begins his familial charge to the parents who must first turn their hearts to the children. What does this mean?
Many years ago, I suggested that imbedded in the prophetic verse was the prophet’s vision of our very unique generation, when the ba’al teshuvah (penitent) movement will be so successful that many parents will be learning from their children around the seder table. Although it is undoubtedly true, as Maimonides teaches us, that there will be no redemption without penitential return (teshuva), life experiences have taught me that there is still another interpretation to Malachi’s words.
Of all of the challenges that each of us adults have in life, none is greater than that of being a parent and grandparent. Tragically, although in order to drive a car or provide a professional service one requires a license that is issued only after successfully passing difficult examinations, one becomes a parent without having taken a single course and without having to prove one’s parental abilities. The seder, which is an expression of the commandment, “And you shall tell (haggadah) to your children,” expresses the challenge of parenting at its very opening. Each of the participants around the table takes karpas, which is usually translated as a green vegetable portending the spring season. However, Rabbi Shlomo Kluger suggests in his interpretation of the Haggadah that the word karpas is derived from the special striped and colored garment which father Jacob gave to his favorite son Joseph (Gen. 37:3), called in Hebrew passim and which Rashi links to the special karpas embroidery decorating King Achashverosh’s palace (Rashi ad loc). We generally dip our vegetable in salt water; however, there is an alternative custom to dip the karpas in charoset, a mixture of nuts and wine which the Jerusalem Talmud suggests is reminiscent of blood. When we remember that the brothers of Joseph dipped his karpas cloak into the blood of the slaughtered ram (Gen. 37:31), it is clear that we are opening the seder remembering the relationship between father Jacob and Joseph, about which the Rabbis of the Talmud criticized the parent who favors one child among the others and thereby causes familial jealousy (B.T. Shabbat 10b). From this perspective, the seder is at one and the same time instructing the parent of his major task to impart Jewish traditions to his children, but warning the parent of the challenges and even difficulties which goes along with parenthood.
How can we avoid the pitfall? First of all, it is crucial to be loving and accepting of all of our children, even of those who may have strayed far from the path. That is why there are four children type-casted around the seder table, one of them being the wicked child. He too must be given a place which enables him to feel the familial embrace. Even more noteworthy is how the Haggadah defines the wicked child: he is neither a Sabbath desecrator nor a partaker of non-kosher food but is rather one who excludes himself from the community of Israel. For Judaism, it is critical that the Jew feels him/herself to be a member of the entire Jewish family. It is incumbent upon every Jewish parent to inclusively accept all the children. The wicked child may even ask provocative and insolent questions to the parents, and is then told by the author of the Haggadah: “hakheh his teeth” a difficult verb usually translated as “blunt his teeth” or give him a slap across the mouth. Nothing could be further from the true interpretation. The Hebrew verb hakheh means to remove the sharpness of an iron implement by the warmth of fire (Eccl. 10:10). The wise parent will take away the sting from the words of a wicked child through familial love and warmth.
Finally, I would suggest that parents must never stereotype their children. Indeed, each of the stereotypes in the Haggadah can be looked at in an opposite way. The wise child may turn out to be a know-it-all, who is supercilious and arrogant. Indeed, the famed Seer of Lublin would always say, “I prefer the wicked person who knows he is wicked to the righteous who thinks he is righteous.” At least the wicked person is honest and he has a real chance of repenting. The one who is called foolish may in reality be naïve and wholehearted and the child does “not know how to ask” may be operating in a realm far beyond logic and much closer to the Divine. At any rate, each of us has a little bit of each of the four children within our own personality; hardly anyone is consistent—either in being good or being wicked—all the time. The message of the Haggadah: be loving and not judgmental, wise and not punitive.
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