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Friday, August 8, 2014

And Now For Something Evil! - Four Sons Walk Into Paradise part 6

This post is dedicated to my newest granddaughter, רות (Rut-- pronounced like 'root'), daughter of Dorin and Ezra Bassel and sister to Zoharia Yam and Shir. May she be a blessing for all of us.

Although I hadn't planned the timing of this part of the series which deals with the Evil Son, I find it particularly apt given that right now in Israel we are confronted by Evil in the form of Hamas fighters. Jews in various parts of the world are further confronted by Evil in the form of mass demonstrations not only against Israel's actions in Gaza but against the existence of the State of Israel and the existence of Jews anywhere they may be. We are also dealing with certain Evils within our own society including hatred of Arabs and anyone seen as the 'enemy.' As I progress in this analysis, I will touch upon the meaning of Evil and some important questions surrounding it. Perhaps these insights will help us to deal with Evil in its various forms and help form a better world. 

NOTE: If you are joining this blog for the first time, you should read from the beginning of the series. As you finish each post, just click on "Newer Post" way down on the left side of the page.  

We now go from wisdom to evil. As I pointed out earlier, the various sons do not seem to have opposites; that is, we don't have a Wise Son and a Stupid Son (although in some versions a Stupid Son comes in place of the Tam—but let's leave that for now). Nonetheless, the Evil Son seems to directly contrast with the Wise Son.

What does the Evil Son ask that is so evil? Let's look at him in the Torah context:

שמות פרק יב (כו) וְהָיָ֕ה כִּֽי־יֹאמְר֥וּ אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם בְּנֵיכֶ֑ם מָ֪ה הָעֲבֹדָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לָכֶֽם:
(כז) וַאֲמַרְתֶּ֡ם זֶֽבַח־פֶּ֨סַח ה֜וּא לַֽיקֹוָ֗ק אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּ֠סַח עַל־בָּתֵּ֤י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם בְּנָגְפּ֥וֹ אֶת־מִצְרַ֖יִם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּ֣ינוּ הִצִּ֑יל וַיִּקֹּ֥ד הָעָ֖ם וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוֽוּ:

Exodus Chapter 12 (26) And it will be that when your sons say to you, “What is this service to you?” (27) And you will say, “It is the Passover sacrifice for the Lord who passed over (or: took mercy) on the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt in his smiting of Egypt and he saved our houses.” And the people lowered their foreheads and bowed.

These two verses come in the wider context of the mitzvot regarding the first Passover as well as Passover as it is to be celebrated in the generations following. As I mentioned, God already gives Moshe a central reason for the plagues: To tell future generations about them (v. Exodus 10:2).

Thus, when we come to these verses, our simple understanding is that the Torah is telling us what to expect from any of our children when they see the extraordinary preparations for Passover and the celebration itself. The answer we are to give (v. 27) fits in perfectly with this idea. We say that we do the service of Passover in reference to how God saved us in Egypt while He carried out the plagues against the Egyptians.

So how does the M'chilta come to see this as the question of the Evil Son and not just of any given child?

First, let's point out some significant differences between the wording of this verse and the verse of the Wise Son.

Here, again, is the Wise Son's question:

דברים פרק ו (כ) כִּֽי־יִשְׁאָלְךָ֥ בִנְךָ֪ מָחָ֖ר לֵאמֹ֑ר מָ֣ה הָעֵדֹ֗ת וְהַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֪ה יְקֹוָ֥ק אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ אֶתְכֶֽם:

Deuteronomy 6:20 When your son asks tomorrow saying: What are the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?

Note that the Wise Son asks a question; the language of the verse specifies that he will ask. Asking implies genuine curiosity, interest and a willingness to learn.

In our verse here in Exodus 12, the question is not asked-- it is said. In other words, it's not really a question on the part of this son – it is a declaration, a kind of rhetorical question. The implication is that the one saying it is not really looking for an answer. He is looking to make a statement.

Another difference is that only one person asks the Wise Son's question (the verse says 'your son' in the singular) whereas the Evil Son's question/statement is made by many ('your sons' in the plural). I will deal in a later post with this aspect of plurality.

We also see that the question/statement here is broad and simple, if not simplistic: What is this service to you? By contrast, the Wise Son included in his question the notion that the service is subdivided into various categories of mitzvah (testimonies, statutes, judgments).

The M'chilta emphasizes yet another point. The midrash focuses on the word לכם (lachem – to you) and understands that by using this term, this son has excluded himself from the community. Here is the M'chilta:

רשע מה הוא אומר מה העבודה הזאת לכם לכם ולא לו ולפי שהוציא את עצמו מן הכלל וכפר בעיקר אף אתה הקהה את שיניו ואמור לו בעבור זה עשה ה' לי בצאתי ממצרים (שמות יג ח) לי ולא לך אלו היית שם לא היית נגאל.

The Evil, what does he say? “What is this service to you?” To you and not to him. And since he removed himself from the community and denied the essence, so you break his power (literally 'blunt his teeth') and say to him 'because of this the Lord did for me in my going out of Egypt (Exodus 13:8).' For me and not for you; had you been there you would not have been redeemed.

Because this son has used language which excludes himself, we also exclude him. The question/declaration tells us that he does not want any part of what he is witnessing in the form of the Passover practice.

What is evil about the Evil Son? Mainly that he excludes himself from the tribe. By doing so, he has 'denied the essence' (כפר בעיקר). The essence, then, must be about the unity of the tribe and one who removes himself from the tribe is, perforce, evil.

Thus, the M'chilta's answer is strikingly different than the Torah's answer. Whereas the Torah's answer points to a general summary of how God protected and saved us in the going out from Egypt, the M'chilta's answer is a strong rebuke to this son.

The Torah's answer tells us how to respond by helping the son to see this service in the scope of his heritage. The M'chilta's answer responds by effectively excluding the Evil Son from the same heritage.

Why is belonging to the community 'the essence,' the main thing? Why is a person who excludes himself from the community not worthy of redemption? We'll look at these questions in a later post.

My next post, though, will explain why we interpret the Evil Son's use of the term 'you' as exclusionary while we don't when it is used by the Wise Son. 

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Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem  


  1. Shel-- I think I’ve told you about the novel I am working on “Cain’s Mother-in-Law,” a story of life after you kill your brother. (My wife gave me some good suggestions recently, so I am working on my ninth (and hopefully final) draft.)

    CMIL will hopefully be just the beginning. I have in mind sequel novels dealing with other pairs of brothers from Genesis, plus maybe one on Moshe and Aaron. I’m interested in the problem of conflict between brothers.

    So, reading your post today made me think that these four sons are not only sons. They are also brothers to one another. And the problem of the Rasha is exactly the sort of thing that has me interested in the various Genesis brothers. (Maybe I could do a novel about the Rasha! But alas, he may have a long wait until I finish the others.)

    With the Rasha, we have an expression of exclusion or separateness. And the response is basically “same to you.” The thing that would interest me in this is how the Rasha came to have these feelings? Also, does the community’s quick response reflect a preexisting animosity toward the Rasha? The community did not have to respond in this way. It could have chosen, instead, to embrace the Rasha. Why didn’t they?

    Everyone probably has the experienced intrafamily conflict in one branch of their family or another. But the problem also has political analogues. You often see the most intense political conflicts between people who seemingly are the closest. Serbs have no beef against the Koreans. Their enemies are the Croats. And North Koreans fight the South Koreans. And I’m sure you see the same dynamic at work closer to home—in Israel and in the United States.

    1. The first sentence of that last paragraph should be "Everyone probably has experienced intrafamily conflict . . ." Sorry for the typo.

  2. Hi Steve,

    Yes, I also think one can look at the four sons as four brothers. In the series here, I am going to focus more on a different approach which I alluded to at the beginning, namely that the four sons are actually all the same person.

    However, yes, the theme of fraternal conflict is a major topic unto itself and is certainly one of the driving themes of the book of Genesis from the time that Cain kills Abel all the way through the story of Joseph which finishes at the end of Genesis.

    I am in the middle of a series of classes on the story of Joseph. I will be posting links to the recordings of the classes soon, if you're interested. I start off by mentioning this theme of brotherly strife throughout Genesis and ultimately will show how I see Joseph as the one who tries to put at an end to this sort of conflict that appears time and again over many generations.

    I may also ultimately pursue this line of thinking about the fours sons as brothers in this series but I have a ways to go to get through the material I've already prepared. On the other hand, I an anxious to see how you work that theme into your book. Good luck!