Proust already introduced the mistakes we make in “Swann’s Way,” when young Marcel encounters Uncle Adolphe on the street, riding in his carriage, and is so moved by his uncle’s kindness and so remorseful for having caused the family rift between his parents and uncle that he considered merely raising his hat to him an inadequate gesture. So he did nothing, turning his head away. Uncle Adolphe, concluding that Marcel was acting on his parents’ instructions, never forgave them, and Marcel never saw his uncle again.
I have seen families and friendships ripped apart by such basic and incurable misreadings, and wonder how often do I make such mistakes in relationships and in reading texts.
Had the Haggadah never described the question as that of a Wicked Son, would I assume that the question was evil? I’m not so sure.
Would I have read the verse that describes a parent teaching a child, not in response to a question, as the frustrating scene read by the Haggadah of dealing with Pierre, “who doesn’t care” enough to ask? I think not.
Would I risk defining a child by a single question? I hope not.
Was it possible for the Kohen to whom a man is brought with a questionable Tzara’at affliction to read the man as anything other than a sinner? It’s hard to believe. We are taught a list of sins for which a man is stricken with this miraculous disease; would the Kohen automatically begin to wonder which sin on the list without wondering whether he was a sinner at all? I guess no more than we begin to measure people by the type of Kipah or head covering they wear. I fear my own misreadings even more than I resent being misread.
When the Metzorah is healed and purified, he comes to the Kohen for atonement. He brings two birds as his offering, one which will be offered on the Altar, and the second that will be set free. The healed Metzorah doesn’t choose which bird will be offered and which will be set free; it’s the Kohen’s choice. The Kohen becomes part of the process because he too needs atonement; he may have ruled on the Tzara’at affliction, but there was the inevitable judgment and misreading as well.
At one point of the Pesach story, after he hears two Jews arguing about his killing the Egyptian, Moshe reflects and says, “Now, I understand!” He was wondering why the Jews were suffering, and when he heard two of them speaking Lishon Harah, negatively judging his actions, misreading his behavior, Moshe understood that such people did not merit protection, let alone, salvation. Rav Yaakov Kamenestky points out (Emet L’Yaakov, Metzorah) that Moshe also had a chance before the exodus to see that the people had changed their behavior: Moshe urged the people to “borrow” gold and silver from the Egyptians, and not a single Jew informed the Egyptians that the “loans” would never be repaid. The people stopped speaking Lishon Harah.
There is another example of this change when the people bow down with joy after hearing they will have children, even though the child mentioned is the Wicked Son of the Haggadah. They stopped judging. They stopped misreading. This is why we mention the Rasha in the Haggadah; not to judge him, but as a reminder of how he represents a major change in the people; they stopped judging. They didn’t view him as a Rasha, but as a child, which is probably why we switch some of the responses the Torah instructs us to give; don’t see the child as he is now, don’t misread him; see him as he can become.
This is also why we eat and dip Karpas before the Haggadah; we recall the story of Joseph and his brothers; a story of one brother misreading the others and speaking negatively of them to Yaakov Avinu, and the brothers misreading Joseph, and dipping his Coat of Many Colors, Ketonet Passim - hinted to in the word Karpas, as we dip the Karpas in salt water, to fool Yaakov, who ended up misreading the situation, and suffering needlessly. (This also led to a split in the family, as in Yachatz, when we split the Matzah.)
Karpas and Yachatz are warnings against such misreadings before we “read” Maggid, and after we have declared Kiddush; our intention to act with sanctity.
Hopefully, we will be able to take these lessons from Pesach and apply them throughout the year.
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