Photo Credit: WikiCommons
The Haggadah. The Four Sons Artist: Arthur Szyk

As Pesach approaches, there is something very important that we must understand. It is that the wicked son in the Haggada is in fact the wisest and most honest of the four sons. Why? Because he is the one who is asking the most important question of all!

Commentators are taken back by the response of the father, who “sets his teeth on edge” and tells his wicked son that if he would have been in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed, because he has excluded himself from the people of Israel. After all, the son says to his father. “What is this service (avoda) lachem (for you)?” implying that he, the son, does not want to be a part of the Seder Evening. It is all meaningless to him.


The truth however is that the father (deliberately?) misunderstands his son. When his son asks this question, he is asking precisely the question the father does not want to hear! He is afraid of this question and therefore gives his son a telling off. As diversionary tactic.

But what the son is really saying is: Instead of asking me what all this means to me. I am asking you! What does all this mean to you (lachem)? I am asking you whether you have any clue what these rituals are all about? Do you know why you are sitting around the table and reading this story and eating a matza and a bit of maror?

After all, the exodus from Egypt is the story of all stories, the greatest story ever told in the annals of mankind. It has inspired many nations to find their freedom and their ethical foundations.

And yet, the son seems to be saying, you seem to be indifferent to all this. In fact, you seem to be afraid of it! How do I know? Because the rest of the year your attitude to Judaism seems to be lukewarm, if not totally indifferent.

When it comes to Judaism, you have been sending me a mixed messages throughout my whole youth. Judaism was barely mentioned at home. At my bar mitzva you were more concerned about what people would say about the fancy party you threw than about teaching me the meaning of what it is to be a Jew and why I am bar mitzva.

When I neglected my secular studies, you were annoyed, but you did not mind that I neglected my Jewish studies. Instead, you were more interested in me doing well in sports. After my bar mitzva, you cancelled my Jewish studies all together because it would be too much to handle, and would get in the way of all my other activities.

You have told me on numerous occasions that I must marry a Jewish girl. But, when I asked “Why? What is wrong with marrying a non-Jewish girl?” you had no answer. And you still do not have.

You have done everything to make Judaism irrelevant to me. But now you suddenly insist that I be present at the Seder night. Why should I?

And even now that we sit at the Seder table you rush through the Haggada, the Pesach story, because the meal is more important to you than the fascinating story of the exodus from Egypt. When I asked you a question about this fabulous story, you told me that it is “getting late” and you would answer me at another time, but you never did. Why? Probably because you do not know. It seems you do not know why you are a Jew.

So I am asking you: What does this “avoda” mean to you?? What do you want from me? It would mean a lot to me if you had taken all this seriously and inspired me, but you didn’t, so why should I take it seriously now?


The above is the story of my life. For nearly fifty years I have tried to answer the wicked son’s question, because it is the most profound question in the life of every Jew. What is the meaning of being a Jew, why is there a Jewish people, why have we outlived all our enemies while still, in the words of Milton Himmelfarb, being smaller in number than a statistical error in the Chinese census. Why have Jews been more influential in world history than any other nation?

I have dedicated my life to showing the relevance, beauty, and the profundity of Judaism. It is as clear to me as the sun that there is no place for indifference or lukewarm attitudes when it comes to Judaism.

We cannot inspire the next generation to be proud Jews without making them aware that to be Jewish is a great privilege, a calling and a universal mission. It is the essence of our being.

The State of Israel will only have a future when it is deeply rooted in Judaism There is no chance that without observing Shabbat, kashrut, and many other profound rituals—together with the call for righteousness and ethics—Jews would ever have existed for nearly four thousand years, influencing the world as we have. But once we start to neglect Judaism, the less relevant we become. No nation can survive with on a borrowed identity.

It was the Catholic author, Thomas Cahill who in a nutshell brought all this together in a ringing call to all of us, the Jews, to continue our mission as Jews:

The Jews gave us (the gentiles) the outside and the inside—our outlook and our inner life. We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact—new, adventure, surprise, unique, individual, person, vocation, time, history, future, freedom, progress, spirit, faith, hope, justice—are the gifts of the Jews.[1]

Who would not be proud to read these words and not want to be part of this tradition?

Today I am 77 years old and in relatively good health. However, a few weeks ago, I was suddenly “hit” by a “TIA”, which is a mini stroke. It occurred when a very small blood vessel closed in my brain for just a few seconds. Baruch Hashem, it did not do any damage and all my faculties function properly without exception.

Still, I have been told by my physicians that I need to slow down. This is requiring me to delegate some of my work to others.

As you know I have just published a reworking of my book: Jewish Law as Rebellion in Hebrew, הלכה כמרד. It was published by the largest publisher in Israel, Yediot Acharonot, which is a great compliment. This unusual work, in which I have suggested new ways to move Judaism and Jewish Law forward in modern times, precipitated a lot of discussion in Israeli society.

I am now finishing my third book on the Torah: Cardozo on the Parashah: Vayikra / Leviticus (Kasva Press). The first two books, Bereishit and Shemot, have already been published. Bamidbar and Devarim will soon follow.

A concurrent project, is my Spiritual Autobiography, in which I tell the unusual story of my life and my mission and philosophy. This will be a highly original and inspirational work, which, I hope, will touch many readers. I have already written a great deal, but there is still much work to be done.

Here is where I turn to you, my dear friends and readers, for your continuing and most generous support of me and my work. Please know that it is always most appreciated, particularly now as we prepare to sit around our Seder tables to celebrate Pesach, the Festival of our Freedom and of our Mission.

May we merit to answer all of our children’s questions wisely!

Reposted from the Rabbi’s website}

Note: This essay was inspired by an insight by my friend Prof Yehudah Gellman of Yerushalayim.

 [1] The Gifts of the Jews, Doubleday, NY 1998, p. 240-241.


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Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the founder and dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew.