Passover 2012: A Personal Encounter with the Rasha

Immediately before we begin the Yom Kippur Eve Kol Nidrei prayer, a short paragraph is recited by the chazzan that ends with the following:

anu matirin l’hispallel im ha’arvanim” — “we sanction prayer with the transgressors”

Rather than being a call for automatic forgiveness of all sins, it is possible that this prayer is meant to engender a stark recognition among all in attendance — that we each have what to work on, and perhaps it is only with this communal permission that our own personal sins do not hold us back from joining.  There are many other explanations, but suffice it to say that we do not position a bouncer at the synagogue door asking for credentials; all who sincerely seek to reconcile with the Almighty are welcome.

The Passover Seder, almost an exact half year from Yom Kippur, presents a somewhat different approach.  We open the maggid discussional with an invitation in Aramaic — historically the language of the common man — for all to join:

kol dichfin yeisei v’yeichul, kol ditzrich yeisei v’yifsach” — “whoever is hungry let him eat, whoever is in need let him [make] Passover”

The fact that this proclamation is made in duplicate is often glossed over because the next stanza is also in doublet form and since the entire Ha lachma anya takes on such a poetic form, one senses that there can be no questions on the formatting.  But, perhaps, it’s because we’re speaking not just of those who are hungry for food.

As a young dentist, I find myself involved with many other dentists through dental school and educational programs and I meet many other Jewish dentists who are either less observant or nearly unaffiliated, and over the last 2 years of so, I’ve used this as as opportunity to invite some of these colleagues for “Friday night Shabbat dinners.” About 2 months ago, my wife and I had four couples over for Friday night but there’s a guy in the group whom I specifically did not invite because I know that he went to a yeshiva day school and then a Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school but has since gone off the derech, and I felt that he would detract from the evening.  We are friendly enough with one another that he approached me after finding out that I had invited a bunch of his colleagues and seemingly left him out, but I hesitated to respond in any meaningful manner and he sort of just walked away assuming that he had not been invited because it was for couples only.

Two weeks ago, I decided to once again have the group over for a meal — this time for the second days of Passover.  And once again, this guy heard about it and sought me out to find out why he hadn’t been invited, although this time, he was a lot more direct.  He seemed upset but insisted that he was not, and explained that this was his tight group of friends and petitioned to be able to join so that he, too, could enjoy the company and fun of a Jewish Holiday meal at my house.

Having laid it all out there, I could not see a way of leaving it alone without opening up a full blown discussion on the matter, so I just told him like I saw it: “If you’re not religious anymore,” I asked, “why would you want to have a Shabbos meal at my house where I’m trying to do kiruv?  Yarmulkes are passed out, we sing Shalom Aleichem and no one talks while the grape juice is poured out and passed around.  Every single person is encouraged to and readily agrees to say the blessing for hand washing and a discussion inevitably begins about why I’m hiding the challah bread under a shiny, embroidered cloth and the secret’s revealed that my wife is wearing a wig!  We have a great time, comments abound about the yumminess of my matzah balls and my wife’s salt & pepper noodle kugel and those who are able join in for the bentching, even if they only able to hum through the more challenging sections that aren’t as popular and singy-songy.  So why,” I continued, “would you possibly want to come for this?  You had this and you discarded it — you were here and left, and if you’re not interested in coming back, what’s the reason you’re so interested in coming?  But more than that — I’d really rather you not be there, because I see you as an obstacle.  It’ll be like a joke, because in the car ride home, someone’ll probably ask you if that’s the way you used to do it when you cared.”

He thought for a second, and then told me I was thinking way too deeply about it — it’s all just for a good time.  He then told me that his two roommates — both previous attendees at my dinner parties — lit Chanukah candles with him and under his direction this past year without ever having done so their entire lives.  “That’s really odd, don’t you think?” I asked him, “You go off the derech and now you’re doing kiruv?”

We concluded gently and warmly, with me firm about wanting this to be a kiruv experience and his presence providing a large potential for undermining that and he disagreeing but understanding where I was coming from.  To him, this has all become a cultural thing.  “I love being Jewish,” was one of the last things he said.

I see how this guy has just fallen off the wagon of interest, “looking for answers but never getting any,” as he put it, but at least he’s not belligerent.  But to him, this is all about culture now.  To me, it’s about introducing these people to the world of observant Judaism — something this guy stands against.

When the haggadah speaks of the questions of the 4 sons and the answers we’re supposed to give, something interested comes up — there’s really only 3 answers.  Four responses, but one of those is not an answer…and the question that doesn’t get an answer is that of the rasha (the wicked son).  When the proverbial 4 sons are at your seder and the rasha asks his question, the response is strange:

“Therefore, be sharp with him.  Say, “It is because of this service that God acted for me when I came out of Egypt.”  Li v’lo lo — for me, but not for him.  Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

Who are we talking to when we say this?  As R’ Aharon Kahn said on my mp3 player yesterday, we generally only refer to the person we’re speaking to in 3rd person when he’s the gadol hador (Torah leader of the generation), and the rasha ain’t no gadol hador!  Really, we are not answering the rasha, for he does not merit an answer, explains R’ Kahn.  We ignore him and instead respond to the proverbial 4th son at the seder (the one who knows not how to ask) who has been exposed to such despicable ranting from the rasha — the 4th son doesn’t know what to say and if we let him hear such things from the rasha unchecked, we might lose him, too, concludes R’ Kahn.

This is not the first time I’ve listened to this mp3 file, but I definitely didn’t have my mind consciously focused on this idea when I decided not to invite the OTD guy to my Shabbos dinner parties.  And he’s not outwardly hateful and aggressive like the rasha from the haggadah, but he might still fit the bill.  He excludes himself from the community, although in his own mind he hasn’t — because, after all, he loves being Jewish…but in what sense is that meaningful according to the Torah if he’s divested himself of all obligation?

So I won’t judge him — if he’s a rasha or not, that’s really between him and God.  I’m give him unconditional love, but that doesn’t mean I should let him be there when I’m trying to make spiritual inroads with his unaffiliated or thoroughly unobservant colleagues.  He is who he is and because of that, he’s the most difficult person to ever try to bring close — because he knows all the tricks, and what’s worse, he knows that he knows all the tricks and he knows that I know it, too.  I don’t know how to help him because he’s already made the plunge — he’s given up hope of finding an answer while maintaining the practice of Judaism.  He no longer does the Judaism and he no longer wears a yarmulke, showing that he’s not afraid to let everyone know.

But he wants to wear one in my house and I just can’t see myself letting him do that.