When we read about the Evil Son in the Haggadah, we immediately distance
ourselves from him and anything he has to say. The assumption is: He is
evil, and therefore, nothing he can say or do can have any relevance to us
or our lives. Sadly, this is a mistaken assumption.
“What does this service mean to you?” is a question that all of us must
answer, including the chachamim amongst us, by the time the Seder is over.
For, the answer to the question is what defines us as Jews, and determines
the level of freedom we are destined to achieve in the upcoming year.
In other words, it is not the question that makes the Evil Son evil, but his
answer. Indeed, his question is his answer, because it is rhetorical. In
fact, it is really a statement phrased as a question, which is: “This
service may have once meant something back in Egypt, but not today. Today it
means nothing, not to me, and not to God. You can sacrifice a lamb if
you want to, but don’t tell me that such a mitzvah exists today!”
The Evil Son assumes, as do many revisionists, that mitzvos are
circumstantial, and that they cease to be mitzvos once the circumstances
that gave rise to them end. Since no one really worships the lamb anymore,
the need to sacrifice one to separate ourselves from such a form of idol
worship is no longer applicable. It is today, at best, a commemoration.
Of course, that is not true, as this week’s parshah makes clear. The verse says:
When a soul will bring a meal-offering to God . . . (Vayikra 2:1)
“Soul” was not used with reference to any voluntary offerings except for the
meal-offering. Whose practice is it to dedicate a meal-offering? A poor
person. The Holy One, Blessed is He, said, “[Although the poor person’s
offering is modest,] I consider it on his behalf as if he offered his soul.”
Why is this the case? Because, for a poor person, even a meal-offering is a
financially difficult thing and requires considerable self-sacrifice, what
we call, Mesiras Nefesh, literally, the “giving of one’s soul.”
Nothing impresses Heaven more than Mesiras Nefesh, as the Talmud points out:
Rav Papa asked Abaye, “Why was it that miracles occurred for the former
generations, but for us miracles do not occur? It cannot be because of their
learning, because in Rav Yehudah’s time the whole of their studies was
confined to [Seder] Nezikin, whereas we study all six Orders [of the
Mishnah] . . . And yet when Rav Yehudah slipped off one shoe [on a fast day
for rain] it used to rain! However, we torment ourselves and cry out loud
[in prayer] and no notice is taken of us!” He replied, “The former
generations used to sacrifice their lives for Kiddush Hashem—the
sanctification of God’s Name; we do not sacrifice ourselves for the sake of
Kiddush Hashem.” (Brochos 20a)
Kabbalah teaches that every mitzvah we do impacts the spiritual world in a
very specific way, and causes a particular rectification that no other
mitzvah we do can. Even particular aspects of a single mitzvah impact the
world differently than other aspects of the same mitzvah, which is why we
have to be careful to carry out each one as if the entire mitzvah, and world
rectification, depends upon this.
Because it does. Very often in halachah the question will be asked, “If this
detail is left out, or not performed as required, is the entire mitzvah
prevented?” Sometimes the answer is no, but oftentimes the answer is yes,
because without that aspect of the mitzvah, the tikun, or rectification,
cannot be completed.
This is not so easy to see or appreciate when learning halachah or its basis
in the Talmud. However, in Kabbalah, where often the impact of specific
mitzvos is discussed, it is clear that a lot more depends upon our mitzvos
and how we do them than we usually think.
However, aside from all of this, mitzvos perform a very basic function as
well: they measure a person’s level of Mesiras Nefesh, and answer the
question of, “What does this service mean to you?”
For example, when someone decides to learn while others are praying Kabbalas
Shabbos, it is clear that the mitzvah is not all that important to him. It
is also clear that he doesn’t mind standing apart from the rest of the
congregation, something halachah does not like too much.
Granted, sometimes it is unavoidable. For example, a person needs to know a
halachah all of a sudden, or he is giving the drashah before Ma’ariv, he
belatedly realizes he needs to look something up before speaking. In each
case and similar ones, it is not because of his lack of love of welcoming in
the Shabbos with the rest of his co-worshippers.
Someone once asked a halachah rabbi how bad it was if he continued on with
such a practice. The rabbi answered, “It is not one of the worst things you
can do.” However, before the person could revel in that psak, the rabbi
added, “But when you go to the World-to-Come, and Shabbos is there to greet
all those who observed it, don’t expect to get a warm greeting, if one at all.”
There is no question that God loves it when a person cannot tear himself
away from His Torah, when his love of learning makes it a top priority for
him. I mean, He REALLY loves it—except, that is, when it is at the wrong
time, like most of Torah on Tisha B’Av, for example, or during times when he
has another more pressing mitzvah to do, such as listening to the Chazzan
who is repeating the Shemonah Esrai on behalf of the congregation, or when
he should be helping someone else out, like his mother, or wife, etc.
In fact, learning at the wrong time can have the exact opposite impact, just
as a sacrifice, at the wrong time, or in the wrong time, can be disgusting
Shmuel said: “Does God delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as much as
does someone listening to the voice of God? Behold, to obey is better than
sacrifice, and to listen, than the fat of rams.” (I Shmuel 15:22)
Given the centrality of Torah learning, and its crucial role in helping us
to properly fulfill the will of God, it is easy to make a mistake about
this. Many do, just as there are others who do not learn enough, or at all,
allowing other mitzvos that are “easier” for them to perform get in the way,
including tzedakah projects. In fact, some have placed such an emphasis on
being good to others to the point that they let that mitzvah interfere with
all-important mitzvos, such as the keeping of Shabbos.
However, as the Talmud stated above, at the end of the time, it is our
Mesiras Nefesh that proves where we hold with God, Torah, and His mitzvos.
When we perform mitzvos correctly, especially the ones that our yetzer haras
like to mock, or even disgrace, and when we go the distance that the
halachah says we should go, then God looks at it as if we have handed our
very soul over to Him, and there is nothing more precious to Him than that.
As commentaries on the Haggadah point out, each of us has an aspect of all
fours sons within us, depending upon the day and our mood, including the
evil son. When we belittle any service of God, no matter how unimportant it
might seem to others around us, we answer his question of, “What does this
service mean to you?” by saying, “Not that much.”
When that happens, we can chalk one up for the side of the Sitra Achra and
yetzer hara, and we can assume that we’re not as free as we thought we were.