GJR | This Elul, Cherishing the Wisdom of the “Wicked Child”

HUC-JIR student Zoe Dressner-Wolberg offers us fresh and unique insights into the Haggadah.

By Zoe Dressner-Wolberg - JDC-Weitzman Fellow and HUC-JIR Rabbinical Student | August 25, 2023

Zoe Dressner-Wolberg (second from right) helps lead a Kabbalat Shabbat in Gdansk, Poland, on her Weitzman-JDC Fellowship.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

Last Passover, I had the privilege of joining Beit Trójmiasto, a small progressive Jewish community in Gdansk, Poland — spending the holiday with a fellow rabbinical student as part of the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship. A few months before our visit, we discussed how we might be able to support the community in celebrating the holiday during the five days we had together. We planned to lead a Seder for the community, of course, and offered to lead Shabbat services and to do some learning with the community. 

When we arrived at Beit Trójmiasto for the first time on the evening of the Seder, we entered their fairly nondescript door on the side of a lovely building in a quiet suburb of Gdansk. We were welcomed by the community’s president, Jan, teary-eyed from preparing horseradish before the arrival of the Seder attendees. The community’s space consists of a multi-purpose room (used for services, communal meals, learning, and more), a kitchen where community members prepare food for their weekly Shabbat potlucks and other celebrations, and a small office where Jan conducts the small community’s business. Community members, many of whom became connected to their Judaism as young adults through this community, began arriving shortly thereafter with food they’d prepared for the Seder. Everyone helped to set the table, unpacking boxes of matzah brought to Gdansk from Warsaw. It was beautiful to see this small community come together, everyone contributing to the celebration, for their biggest event of the year. All together, we were 25 people. 

Zoe Dressner-Wolberg

The Seder was filled with warmth and joy and reflection, and we were thrilled to get to know the community members over dinner afterward. We returned the following day to learn together. The learning that we prepared received a more modest turnout, one more representative of the community’s regular events and services. Eight of us gathered around the same table we’d sung around the night before, and we turned to some of the texts found in the Maggid portion of the Seder, which we read every year but often don’t discuss at greater length. We began with the story of the five rabbis, exploring questions about the rituals of the Seder, the unique place of the story of the exodus from Egypt in our tradition, and the relationships between teachers and students, everyone at the table bringing their own distinct experiences to their interpretation of the text.

We then moved to the text of the four children, discussing each child’s question and the response they receive. When we arrived at the wicked child’s question, “?מָה הָעֲבוֹדָה הַזּאֹת לָכֶם/What is this worship/service to you?” Jan shared that this question really struck him as relevant to his own experience. He and the other people around the table, many of Beit Trójmiasto’s regulars, dedicate so much of their time and energy to this small, remote, lay-led Jewish community and to maintaining their own Jewish identities and practices. They hold regular services and communal meals, organize events with lecturers, and this year, they even hold a daily Zoom minyan so they can say Kaddish for one of their founding members. It is understandable that Jan and the other members of the community look inward and toward each other, asking the question that the wicked child poses: “What is this worship to you?” We spent lots of time following that initial comment reflecting on the many things that motivate each of us to commit ourselves to Jewish life and community in the ways that we do, even when it’s challenging.

It was beautiful to see this small community come together, everyone contributing to the celebration, for the year’s biggest event.

Our tradition teaches that the wicked child’s question is wrong and that he deserves punishment for having asked it at all. The Haggadah reads, “לָכֶם – וְלֹא לוֹ. וּלְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל/ to you and not to him, and because he excluded himself from the collective, he denied a principle of faith.” The wicked child is rebuked for his question, having implied that he does not share in the communal experience, but as we studied together in Beit Trójmiasto, his question actually prompted the opposite response: reflection that is necessary in order to remain committed to our Judaism, to the communities to which we belong, and to the causes that compel us.

This is the sort of important reflection that we are blessed to have the entire month of Elul to do. Just as the Beit Trójmiasto community made use of the wicked child’s question, so too may we all take full advantage of this month of introspection. In reviewing and renewing our commitments, may we all merit entering the new year with all of the energy we need to continue the worship and service that we are invested in. 

Zoe Dressner-Wolberg is a Weitzman-JDC Fellow and a second-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York. 

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