That there are four sons (really four human types) in the Haggadah everyone knows. The precise identification of each of the four always gives seder participants a field day. That is one of the beauties of the Haggadah, that it seizes our imagination and provokes our thinking. If this is true of the other three sons, how much more does it apply to the rasha, the wicked son.
Jewish history has often attached epithets to famous (and infamous) names – Avraham Avinu (Father Abraham), Rachel Immenu (Mother Rachel), Yoseph HaTzaddik (Joseph the Righteous), Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our Teacher), Miriam HaN’viah (Miriam the Prophetess), David HaMelech (King David), Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet), Yehudah HaNasi (Judah the Prince); Bil’am HaRasha (Balaam the Wicked), Haman HaRasha (Haman the Wicked). Note that the term rasha has been sparingly used, and then only in relation to notorious villains.
So when the Haggadah applies the term to a fellow-Jew, we are taken aback. It must imply ultimate disapproval. Akavya ben Mahalalel, when criticised by his Mishnaic colleagues, said, “I would rather be called a fool all my days than a rasha even for one hour”.We do not know who was the original rasha of the seder. Later commentaries and illustrations sometimes see him as a soldier; as a philosopher; as a man about town, intent on pleasure and indulgence. Many Haggadot see the rasha as a heretic whose question, “What does this service mean to you?” places him outside the pale. At times the wicked son was a Karaite, a member of a dissident sect. In the 19th century some saw him as a reformer.
The message is obvious: a wicked son is not politically correct. A wise son does not dissent from tradition; a wicked son does. Today, though, the battle-field is larger. Orthodox and Reform (and Conservatives) trade insults, not only on Pesach but throughout the year. Chasidic communities cast aspersions on each other. Chasidim and non-Chasidim indulge in name-calling. The religious and the secular have a go at each other. In Israel, not just the religious spectrum but the political divide brings extreme epithets.
Some say this lusty language is part of the democratic process. People have freedom of speech and opinion, so if a Jew believes another Jew is profoundly wrong, should he say nothing? The problem, however, goes far beyond the issue of democracy and free speech. Verbal violence tears the Jewish people apart. If we can’t speak respectfully of others, however much we disagree with them, we will dissipate our energies and fail to see the spark of potential in innumerable others who, like ourselves, are groping for a Jewish response to the complexities of today.
Rabbi Yehudah explains the verse, “You are sons to HaShem your God”: “When you behave as sons then you are called sons, but not when you do not behave as sons.” Rabbi Meir says, “In either case they are called sons.” The rasha is a son, brother, daughter, sister. His attitudes may pain us. But the time has come to moderate our language about him. Hurling epithets across a divide achieves very little. Civility may work better.