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The Wicked Son and the Danger of Labeling

Updated: Apr 2, 2020

Many of us place global, negative, evaluative labels on ourselves and others.

“I am worthless.”

“You are so stupid.”

“They are such losers.”

These labels are almost always distortions of reality, taking a few instances or characteristics, and then classifying and judging the entirety of ourselves or others based on a few examples. Besides for generally being factually inaccurate, negative labels can lead to unhealthy emotions such as anxiety, depression, shame, and rage. Labels also implicitly suggest that those qualities are fixed and unchangeable.

For example, one particularly common label is when we call ourselves or others “a bad person.” If after we do something wrong, sinful, or mean, we then label ourselves as a bad person, we very well may be magnifying the bad thing we did out of proportion and discounting the various good things we have also done. When we call ourselves a bad person there is a very high likelihood that we will get depressed and fuse our identities with being bad to the point that we don’t think we can change, leading to even more bad actions.

This insight was made in Pirkei Avot by Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel, when he exhorts us “al tehi rasha bifnei atzmecha” - “do not to be wicked in your own eyes” (Avot 2:12). Rabbeinu Yonah explains that if we commit a sin and consequently label ourselves as wicked, that will lead us to do even more sins. By identifying as bad, we are more likely to do bad. We should acknowledge bad behavior and make amends without labeling ourselves as bad people.

Yet, it would be misleading to not acknowledge that our tradition does often utilize the label rasha – bad or wicked – to categorize people. This may not present such a challenge when describing homicidal villains throughout the ages but does need elaboration and clarification when the label is used in other instances. Perhaps most glaring and relevant is the “wicked son” who we read about in the Haggadah. He excludes himself from the community and denies G-d, so we “blunt his teeth” and declare that if he was alive in the time of the Exodus, he would not have been redeemed. Is the Haggadah suggesting that it is OK to label people?

It would be naïve to ignore that there is communal and religious value to labeling and categorizing those that present a spiritual danger to our way of life so that we can protect ourselves appropriately. Yet, because there is also a danger in labeling, we need to overcompensate and be clear in articulating both when labels are justified, as well as the proper approach in relating to people who warrant labels.

Because we have what is a generally wonderful tendency to personalize the seder experience, we are in danger of over-personalizing the label of rasha. If you do a Google image search for “the four sons” you will see several pictures that depict young children with angry, challenging, or smug facial expressions and body language to depict the wicked son. The message communicated is that any person who gets angry or is defiant can be considered bad. That is a far and dangerous stretch from calling someone who denies G-d and excludes himself from the community as wicked.

We must be extra careful in not overdoing the personalization of this concept! If we are going to highlight the category of rasha, we must be clear in delineating who fits into that category and what actions or behaviors DO NOT fit into that category. As a professional with particular expertise in treating anger, I know full well that anger has negative consequences - but getting angry does not make someone a bad person! Violating commandments requires repentance but also does not necessarily make someone a bad person. If we are going to utilize the term rasha, we need to be clear that it is a very specific category and does not expand to include every sin that we or someone else does.

In the case where we justifiably and necessarily label someone as a rasha, we need to be judicious. Because of the inherent danger of labels in that they can lead to unhealthy emotions and a spiraling cycle of continuously bad behavior, we need to overcompensate in the message we communicate about the rasha. At the seder, we should selectively choose commentaries that balance criticism with positive, inclusionary messages.

For instance, after articulating the dangers that the mid-20th century version of the rasha presents, Rabbi Norman Lamm suggests that “we must approach him with understanding and sympathy,” and finishes off by stating that we must “above all – love him!” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik contends that “[t]he Torah did not say to throw the rasha out of the house. Rather engage him in debate and show him that he is wrong: ‘blunt his teeth.’ Talmud Torah requires bringing the one who got lost, the child who was alienated, back into the fold. He or she is a rasha now, but there is potential in the rasha.” Based on Rabbi Abraham Kook, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that “if you loved him before, love him even more now.” Rabbi Sacks goes so far to argue that the message of the Haggadah is not geared toward the rasha, but to his parents – that they should analyze their own ways and model better behavior on their part.

The message for us is to engage with the rasha, not exclude him. And the message we articulate to the rasha is that there is always hope to change and improve. There is never a point of no return. The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that the reason the wise son is juxtaposed next to the wicked son is to teach the wicked son that he can become wise if he corrects his behavior. Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk suggests that the word wicked in Hebrew has the same letters as the word gate (reish-shin-ayin; shin-ayin-reish), to teach us that a Jew can find the path to G-d at all times, even in the depths of wickedness.

As we recite the Haggadah this year, let us all be careful of the explicit and implicit messages we send to our children and to ourselves. Because of the dangers inherent in labeling, we should be cautious of calling ourselves or others bad, evil, or wicked. And even if we are going to use the term for a justified purpose, let us make sure that we overemphasize love and inclusion and highlight the ever-existing opportunity for ourselves and others to improve and change for the better.


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