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The Wicked Child

The first Seder had been awful. Edward didn’t like matzah and he said so. “This stuff is like cardboard. Do we really have to eat this junk all week?” He thought the whole idea of a Seder, the special Passover meal, was stupid, all the ritual this and symbolic that. The Four Questions that children are expected to recite were really stupid. Nobody ever really reclines when they eat. They’d choke. Then there was all the stuff about opening the door for Elijah and the cup of wine. “Hey, doesn’t this remind you of putting out milk and cookies for Santa Claus?” he suggested. Nobody laughed at his joke.

“You remind me of the wicked child in the Haggadah,” said his Uncle Robert, referring to the rebellious child, one of four described in the Passover Haggadah. Uncle Robert then went into some spiel about how special it was to be Jewish and a chain linking us all the way back in history. Then he threw in the Holocaust. Whenever adults want you to feel bad about not being Jewish, Edward thought, they bring up the Holocaust.

So, here they all are at the second Seder and nothing has changed. More aunts and uncles and cousins pour into the house. Everyone raves about the food—brisket and turkey, tsimmes and potato kugel—but Edward would prefer pizza or spaghetti, even a bagel. Edward, the oldest child in the family, is still feeling like the wicked child, but he keeps quiet. “Don’t spoil it for your younger brothers and sisters and everyone else,” his father warned.

The Seder went along in its predictable way. The little kids all sang the Four Questions. “Oh, how beautiful,” Aunt Linda declared, ignoring all the mistakes.

“I can read, so I’m joining in the adult parts,” Edward pointed out, as an explanation for why he didn’t join the other children.

“Welcome to the club. You’re getting to be a big boy,” said Uncle Robert, giving Edward a friendly wink.

Despite his best efforts, however, Edward couldn’t put much feeling into this. Bubbie started crying as usual when they got to the part where the Haggadah speaks of telling the story as if each person came out of Egypt. Bubbie escaped the Holocaust so she truly feels that God redeemed her, his father explained to their visitors. “What about all the people who were killed? God didn’t save them,” Edward muttered under his breath. He didn’t feel redeemed at all.

The Afikomen part of the Seder is Edward’s favorite. His father always hides the Afikomen, a special piece of matzah. When the children find it, they all bargain for a prize, usually a book or a toy. Because he is the oldest child, however, Edward often is slipped a real dollar too. During the meal, the kids searched high and low for the Afikomen. “That’s surprising,” Edward told his younger sister. “Usually we find it right away.”

“Give us a hint,” begged the children.

“It’s not upstairs,” said the father, and it is at the eye level of a child, he added. The kids scatter to cover every room in the house. Edward slipped off to his father’s study because he vaguely remembered his father coming out of there just after the start of the Seder meal. In the past this room was off limits, but his father hadn’t said that this year.

The study is crammed with bookshelves stuffed with books, the perfect place to hide the Afikomen, thought Edward. But where? A tiny glint catches his eye. It came from the light hitting the glitter his little sister used to decorate the Afikomen bag in nursery school. He reached over to pick up the bag, but as soon as he touched it he felt like he was spinning. He yanked his hand back, but it was too late.

Suddenly Edward found himself lying in what seemed to be a giant mud puddle. Someone was shouting at him in a language he didn’t understand. Before he could move, something hit him. Ooow! It stung. Someone, he realized, is hitting him with a whip. Again and again the whip lashes him. He madly scrambled to his feet. A guy who looks like an ancient soldier, like the kind he’d seen in movies, snaps a whip and shouts at him. Dirty people are all around him lugging bricks. Scared and confused, Edward scrambles into line with them and picks up some bricks. His whole body hurts from the whipping. He’s just a kid, but they whipped him hard, real hard. He’s crying, but nobody does anything.

All day in the burning sun Edward carries bricks. He didn’t understand a word people said. He wanted to go home, but he couldn’t figure out where he was or what happened. His body ached and he was desperate for a drink of water. As the sun was getting low in the sky a bell rang and people started trudging off in another direction. Edward decided to follow them.

As they walked a murmur grew among the people heading toward a collection of mud shacks. He arrived with the last stragglers and found the people suddenly energized. They were killing sheep and painting the doors of their shacks with the blood.

Now Edward recognized who they were and where he was. “They’re Jews. This must be Egypt. They’re slaves. They think I’m a slave too,” he thought. The blood meant that they must be preparing for the final plague—the killing of the first born.

Before Edward could react, the people disappeared into their shacks. Some moms grabbed the last children and animals. Edward was left alone, outside, as the last rays of the sun disappeared and night arrived.

Edward sat down to try to figure things out. Very slowly he started to hear crying, quiet and far off at first but drawing closer. Then it dawned on him. “God is coming tonight to kill all the first born of Egypt!” he shouted. No one heard him. All the Jews had painted their doorposts and were now staying inside. Edward was left alone, outside, as the terrifying wailing and crying got closer and closer.

Then he realized the jam he was in. “I’m a first born. I will be killed too,” he cried. He didn’t want to be killed. He wanted to live, to be home again, to be with his family, to be…redeemed. Yes, he too wanted to be redeemed. He had to be redeemed. Frantic, he tried knocking on doors, but none would open.

Unable to get inside, he huddled on the doorstep, right up against a doorpost painted with sheep’s blood. The wailing grew louder and louder. He felt in the air the scariest thing he could ever imagine—not a thing really but a presence. It had come to kill the first born of Egypt. Edward, a first-born son, knew he was in trouble, deep trouble.

“But I’m a Jew too,” he pleaded. And suddenly, he started to pray: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad.” He repeated it over and over. He recited the Borchu, Alenu, Ashrei. He searched his mind for every prayer his teachers in Hebrew school ever tried to teach him, every prayer he ever heard people praying in synagogue. And he kept repeating them over and over.

The wailing kept growing louder and closer and closer. With terror seizing him, Edward closed his eyes and ears and prayed as hard as he could. He felt the presence almost on top of him, stopping. Still he prayed. After what seemed a long time, the presence moved past. The wailing spread throughout what seemed the whole world, but he was still alive.

Edward kept praying through that night of terror and sorrow until, as dawn broke, he heard a new sound drown out the anguished cries of the Egyptians. It was the Israelites shouting from house to house. Suddenly people were rushing into the streets, grabbing whatever belongings they could. The Exodus had begun.

“Thank you Adonai,” whispered Edward.

“Aren’t you going to bring in the Afikomen?” asked his father. “We’re all waiting to continue.”

Edward was standing in the library holding the Afikomen. “I thought you wouldn’t hide it in your study,” he said in a shaken voice.

“You found it so easily last night. I thought you needed a little challenge,” his father replied.

The rest of the Seder seemed to race by. They opened the door for Elijah and it seemed to Edward that the level of wine in the cup did drop, that Elijah actually came and drank with them. When it came time to sing the songs, Edward sang for joy, as energetically as he could, as if he really was celebrating freedom with the Jews in Egypt.

“Last night’s wicked child sounds like a cantor tonight,” Aunt Linda whispered to Edward’s father.

His father smiled: “It sounds to me like he’s discovered what the Seder is all about.”