This week our son Shalom had his wisdom teeth removed. It wasn’t easy to get an appointment with a doctor that would do the procedure during the few weeks between when he arrived home from Eretz Yisrael and Pesach. We were gratified that it was able to work out.
Wisdom teeth are highly mislabeled. They are so called because they generally emerge during the late teen years. I am not sure what those years have to do with wisdom (see last week’s Musings). It is believed that they were named by the Greek physician Hippocrates, who is famous for writing the Hippocratic oath.
The Japanese call those back molars teeth “unknown to the parents,” and in Turkish they are referred to, simply, as “20-year teeth.” But in Hebrew, wisdom teeth are called shinei bina – teeth of understanding.
Maybe calling them wisdom teeth is actually more of a euphemism.
At any rate, we were advised that when people awake from the extraction procedure, the after-effects of the anesthesia often cause the patient to act and say funny things. Indeed, when he awoke Shalom laughingly complained that the doctor not only took out his teeth but also his (numbed) chin. He also told the doctor that he wanted the teeth back. In case he needed them he could always glue them back in.
As this happened two weeks before Pesach, I was trying to think about what possible connection teeth extraction may have with the Yom Tov of Pesach. But I was unable to think of any.
For those who will say that there is mention of the teeth of the wicked son in the Haggadah, I reply that our Shalom is B”H a wise son. What’s more, the Haggadah doesn’t say that the wicked son’s teeth are knocked out. Rather, it says that his teeth are to be blunted. In other words, to remove the bitter sharpness of his invective.
While I am on the topic however, I would like to share a novel perspective about the meaning of blunting the teeth of the wicked.
In Megillas Esther, there is a fateful moment when Achashveirosh tells Haman to parade Mordechai through the streets of Shushan and repeatedly proclaim, “This is what is done to the man whom the king wishes to honor.” Achashveirosh adds to his instructions, “Al tapel davar mikol asher dibarta.” Loosely translated the words mean that Haman shouldn’t leave anything out from what he had suggested to Achashveirosh. However, the literal translation of those words is “do not let a word fall from all that you have spoken.”
The Ben Ish Chai notes that at that time Haman was an old man. (Rav Chaim Kanievsky, zt”l, writes that Haman and Mordechai were both 95 at the time of the Purim story.) By that age, Haman was undoubtedly missing many of his teeth, which would make it difficult for him to enunciate certain letters (zayin, samech, shin, raysh, tzadik).
Achashveirosh was concerned that in an effort to mitigate his shame, Haman would mumble the words he was instructed to repeat. In this way, Haman’s proclamation would just sound like ranting gibberish. Therefore, Achashveirosh warned him, “Speak slowly and clearly and don’t let the words fall out of your mouth in a manner that they won’t be understood.”
The Bendiner Rav, Rav Chanoch Tzvi Levin, was once in agony because of a severely impacted tooth. A dentist was summoned to the Rav’s house and he immediately extracted the tooth. Afterwards, the Rav thanked him and asked him how much he owed him for his services. The dentist replied that it was common practice for the members of that town to present the Rav with a monetary gift on Chanukah. He suggested that in lieu of payment, the dentist would simply not give the Rav a Chanukah gift that year.
The Bendiner Rav replied that he would not allow such an arrangement. “If the members of the community find out that they can pull a tooth instead of giving me a Chanukah gift, I will have no teeth left by the end of the week.”
One of the underappreciated benefits of teeth is that they help us express our thoughts, ideas and messages clearly.
Torah and Judaism do not fear questions. In fact, all of Gemara is rooted in sharp challenges and pointed questions. My rebbi, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that the Gemara asks the questions we would never ask.
The question is only how the question is asked. If one asks in order to probe, ponder and understand, there is nothing that cannot be asked. But if one has already made up his mind and isn’t interested in hearing another viewpoint or perspective, trying to answer his questions is futile.
Throughout my school years whenever a classmate would raise his hand and announce, “I’m going to the bathroom,” the teacher response was always, “Are you asking me or telling me?” The student would then rephrase it as a question.
The question of the wicked son is valid: Why do we perform the Pesach service? The problem is that the wicked son isn’t actually asking. Rather, he is mockingly declaring, “Why are you doing this!” He has already made up his mind that it is meaningless and he doesn’t want to be bothered with the facts.
Perhaps that is part of the response to the wicked son in the Haggadah. Dulling the teeth of the wicked son means to try to change the manner in which he poses his challenge. Our response to him is that he is welcome to ask away, but do so with respect. Don’t allow the words to “fall out” of your mouth with disdain or mockery.
If we get to the teeth of the matter, we realize that the deficiency of the wicked son is that he doesn’t want to sink his teeth into it. The root of it is that he wants to remain an outsider looking in. He needs to learn to bite his tongue and to restrain his biting criticism. Otherwise he is lying through his teeth… to himself!