Photo Credit: Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
Rabbi Eliyahu Safran

We welcome a new child into our homes and are filled with joy, optimism, love, and hope. We imagine the world we want for our new child. In our heart of hearts, we have an image of what that child will be when he grows up. A scholar. A mensch. A good match for a good wife.

But as they grow and develop, as they mature, will we want what is true to them, or will we want only what is true to us?


We envision our children being like us, only better. But what if they don’t meet that standard? What if they disappoint us? What if rather than being a source of pride, our children become a source of shame?

In Shemot (12:26-27), we read: And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, What do you mean by this service? that you shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, who passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians, and saved our houses. And the people bowed their heads and worshipped.

Rashi comments that the people “bowed their heads” in gratitude for the news of their redemption and the promise they would have children. And yet when this very same passage appears in our Haggadah, we know it to identify the “wicked son.”

Why would the Children of Israel bow their heads in gratitude if the children they were to have would rebel?

The Satmar Rebbe suggested that while it is true that sometimes a child is born with a nature that tends toward evil, it is important for a parent to accept this and still try to educate and guide the child.

His wise teaching makes clear that when it comes to raising a child to adulthood, perhaps the greatest quality a parent can have is acceptance.

Would that such acceptance be more apparent in our homes and yeshivas today!

Listen to the wicked son: “What is this service to you?” He seems to be asking the question from outside. We have been taught to picture this rasha as refusing to acknowledge that the service he questions has been ordained by God and that he is not asking in order to learn but in order to annoy.

Isn’t that how those on the outside behave? To irk? To annoy?

Better to push them further away, no?

Perhaps. But maybe we push away too quickly. The Satmar Rebbe noted that while a father must educate and guide a son who leans toward evil, that is not the case when one is confronted with a truly wicked person – one who hides his wickedness behind a veil of piety. Such people are truly dangerous. So it was that while Jews were told there would be those among their children who asked disturbing and difficult questions, they were grateful for the warning.

In the same way, the Brisker Rav taught that before Rivkah knew she was going to give birth to twins, she feared the turmoil in her belly was caused by a single child who would be running back and forth between the beis medrash and the house of idolatry. But once she learned she would have two different sons with different personalities, she was calmed.

Why was she not tormented that one of her sons would be wicked? Because, the Brisker Rav went on, one can try to help a wicked child whose intentions are clear. One rooted in the beis medrash at the same time he is rooted in the house of evil is much more difficult to reach.

Different sons. Different parenting. Each to receive the guidance he required.

In our verse we learn that the “…the people bowed their heads and prostrated themselves.” They did this knowing that one in four of their children would be reshaim. They would be cynical and rebellious; they would be OTD.

They did not hide their faces in shame. They did not turn away in scorn. They bowed their heads in gratitude.

I hear and read of children – bright children, sensitive children – pushed to succeed in ever more stressful situations only to have the rosh yeshiva throw them out if they do not meet or exceed expectations.

It is as if we have settled on a community model of automatons, with each young person moves forward in perfect lock-step fashion, dressing the same, studying the same, davening the same. Is there a more disturbing image? And yet, in willful ignorance of what we learn from this passage in Shemot, that is what we seem to be creating in our response to rebellious young people.

The Satmar Rebbe makes clear that it is inevitable that there will be young people who question, who challenge, who rebel. Whether by choice or inclination, they simply cannot or will not walk the walk or talk the talk that has been imposed upon them.

Why not? Because they are different. They did not choose to be different. They simply are. And, as a result, they cannot help but think and feel this avodah is “for you.”

What should the response be? According to the Rebbe, the response is simple. Accept this individual. Accept this decree and do everything possible to educate and guide. But do so with respect for the difference. Do not force the child to change. Do not cast him out.

If you had a child whose digestive tract could not tolerate lactose, would you starve him because he could not eat or drink dairy products? Of course you wouldn’t. You would find another, equally successful, way to nurture and feed him.

The Rebbe suggests nothing less for the spiritual wellbeing of the rebellious one. He is not able to tolerate eight hours of education a day? Accept that and then do whatever you can to ensure that he gets a pathway that will allow him to “digest.”

That is what the Children of Israel are bowing their heads about. They were grateful for the revelation that they would not have to torture the boy, trying to force a “square peg into a round hole” while refusing to accept the simple truth that he is not a metzuyan. He is, instead, a wonderful gift from God who simply does not conform. Why torture him? Why make him feel he has no one to talk to (except, God forbid, the truly evil ones lurking, waiting?) Why cast him out?

It is not easy to have a child say “What is this avodah to you?” But recall the way the Torah phrases it. “And it shall be when your children say to you…” Yes, the Torah is referring to the rasha but it is also emphasizing that the he is still saying to you.

As those who have raised truly troubled children can attest, it is not always easy to hear what they say but it is important that they are talking to you. As long as that is happening, there is a chance to turn hard and challenging into good and rewarding.

Our OTD crisis is fueled by parents and educators who respond with anger and hard-heartedness to the challenging and rebellious child, not by the rasha himself. The response to the rasha must be to love and reassure him. He must know he can speak with you no matter what it is he says. Turning your back on such a child closes off any chance of return, of growth, of redemption.

Our forefathers bowed their heads in gratitude when informed that “this one” is a rasha. A gift from God! Two gifts – the child and the foreknowledge that he is a rasha. There would be no need to play games. To use the dietary analogy again, I would scour the earth to find a diet my child could tolerate, that would allow him to develop and grow strong.

How much more should I seek a “diet” that would allow his soul to find comfort and expression, allow him to wrestle with the rebelliousness in his heart and still find a loving and caring home in the Jewish community?

How much more?


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Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author, and lecturer. He can be reached at
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