The Wicked Child

The importance of intention in our service to God

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

I have always been puzzled by the questions of the four children at the seder. Often, we gloss over them to get to the famed Hillel sandwich, pausing only to recognize the pedagogic missteps in providing answers to the four inquisitors; however, this year I am particularly struck by the question of the wicked child who asks, What is this service to you?

This seemingly brazen question smacks with spite and makes me think back to younger days in shul when I just did not have the perseverance to sit still through the rabbi’s sermon, and I would lash out at my parents questioning the very relevance of the service.

An Indictment

But, I believe the question of the wicked child is even more of an indictment than the complaint of a restless child in shul. The term we use for our service of God is the same word as the service of a slave–avodah.

wicked childThe wicked child, then, is questioning the relevance of our current avodah. She believes that religion is about spirituality, faith, and cleaving to the Divine, yet this is absent in the intricacies of the laws of Judaism. We replace our labor in Egypt with an observance just as vacuous. Here we stand on the other side of the Red Sea, which miraculously split before us, and our observance does not reflect the wonder and radical amazement that would be consistent with our experience.

Viewing her question in this way, the wicked child forces us to face the problem of the tension between observance and passion. The angst she expresses is targeted at a religion in which practice is without passion, action without intention.

Action vs. Intention

This tension is manifest within our tradition. Rabbeinu Asher, a French Talmudist and halakhist [Jewish law expert] in the 14th century, commenting on the laws of prayer in the legal compendium known as the Tur, wrote that if we recite a blessing without any intention, we still fulfill our obligation to recite that blessing; however, shortly afterward, he rules the exact opposite with regard to hearing a blessing recited by the cantor, stating that our inner dialogue does have decisive importance and that it can prevent us from fulfilling our obligations.

The debate of intention continues throughout Jewish discourse, reaching a pinnacle during the time of the Hasidim of the late 18th and 19th centuries in Eastern Europe. The singing, dancing, and meditation prevalent today are remnants of the highly spiritual life promoted by earlier followers who focused their inner dialogues and intention of observance. Although the remnants remain, much of Judaism today is left bereft of that intention and inspiration, and the challenge of the wicked child rings all too true. So what is the inner dialogue that helps us to focus our intention?

Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1951 to 1972, is frequently quoted as having said, “When I pray, I speak to God, when I study, God speaks to me.” It is his study that inspired his inner dialogue with God and focused his intention; it is a study we continue today in our synagogues, schools, and homes, making our avodah more than just work.

Study vs. Observance

The Talmud, in Kidushin 40b, focuses on this tension as well in a dispute between rabbis Tarfon and Akivah where they are discussing which is better, study or action. Their dispute strikes at the heart of the issue: Is Finkelstein’s inner dialogue through study or the basic observance of law more important? The answer provided by our sages in the discussion is that study is greater, because it leads to action.

Isaiah Horowitz (d.1630), in his book Shnei Lukhot ha’Brit, is puzzled by the answer of the sages. He challenges the reason they cited for the greater importance of study, saying that negates that very concept–if study is greater, then it cannot be so because it leads to action; however, Horowitz sees it not as a means/ends discussion, but as a cause/effect discussion. Here, the cause enables the effect, and without it, our action is the vacuous observance of the wicked child of the seder.

To further illustrate his point, Horowitz quotes from a Safed kabbalist [mystic], Moshe Cordovero(1522-1570), author of Pardes Rimonim. Cordovero uses a spectacular metaphor, relating the human body to the sun and the moon. Just as the moon has no light of its own and simply reflects the light of the sun, so too, our bodies have no light of their own and only reflect what is emitted by the soul. The internal flame of our soul, ignited by study, reflects on our physical–our action–our avodah.

May our time studying the questions of the seder–even those questions we find difficult–inspire our spirit to burn brightly and be reflected in our actions. Our mission is clear from the seder: tze u’lmad, go and learn.

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