I’d Rather be Wicked than Wise

Listening to Billy Joel was a part of my childhood. Like most kids from New Jersey and New York, part of growing up was learning the lyrics to his songs. I still rock out to my Billy Joel playlist on Spotify and love that he plays at the Garden monthly. One of my favorite Billy Joel songs – and admittedly my “go to” karaoke song – is Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” In it, he sings to a religious girl, explaining that she is missing out on all the fun in life by hiding behind the strict rules and rites of her faith. I don’t necessarily agree with the lyrics, even if I love the song. As a rabbi, I of course don’t believe that fun and faith are opposing polarities on a single spectrum. Still, I believe there is value in his lyrics. Joel sings, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” He is essentially saying he would rather be wicked than wise. Except, being wicked isn’t so wicked at all.

This week, during the holiday of Passover, we read about the four children during our Passover seders. The text in the Haggadah introduces us to the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask. One can argue that thesearen’t four separate children, but instead are each a part of us. At times we are all wise, wicked, simple, and silent. I don’t take issue with any of these children. I am bothered though by how each child is characterized.

foursonsWhat makes the wise child so wise? This child asks: “What are the testimonies, the laws, and judgments, that the Lord our God has commanded you to follow?” The wise child is only interested in rules and regulations. He or she is interested in a faith that is black and white, full of “thou shalls” and “thou shall nots.” This child is only about doing, without worrying about meaning or intent behind the action.

We must also ask, what makes the wicked child so wicked? After all, wicked, or Rasha in Hebrew, evil one, is quite an intense descriptive term for this child. Haman was evil. Pharaoh was evil. What makes this child so evil? Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic comments in Jonathan Safran Foer’s New American Haggadah: “The wicked son is not wicked in any of the usual ways. He is not violent or sexually immoral; he does not keep slaves or steal.”

The wicked child asks: “What does this mean to you?” The child is not worried about perfecting ritual or reading liturgy properly. Rather, the wicked child is searching for meaning and understanding. Is that so bad? While traditionally, the rabbis argued that he was scolded because he didn’t care about his people or the scriptural narrative of the Jewish people, I think it is deeper. This text is an attempt by rabbinic tradition to emphasize doing without understanding or finding meaning. Appropriately, when the Israelites received the Torah, they said, “Naaseh v’Nishmah, we will do and then we will understand (Ex. 24:7).”

I am not suggested that there is no value in doing without finding meaning. Of course there is value! Part of doing without truly understanding why we do what we do is tradition, community, and faith. Additionally, the act of doing leads to understanding. Still, I would hardly consider he who only wants to do without questioning why and without searching for meaning as a chacham, as a scholarly and wise individual.

True wisdom is questioning. True wisdom is challenging. True wisdom is constantly searching for meaning and understanding that spiritual journeys are not always straight paths. True wisdom is being committed to doing while challenging. So maybe the wise child isn’t so wise after all. And maybe the wicked child is pretty smart. Instead of chastising the wicked child, we should be rewarding the wicked child. On a holiday full of asking questions, there is no greater question than that which searches for meaning. So I’d rather be wicked than wise, because in the words of Bllly Joel, they have much more fun.

Let us all be wise enough to be “wicked,” to not be as worried about what we do, but to step outside of our comfort zones and search for meaning in what we do.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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