I Relate to the Contrary Son in the Passover Service
Commentary by Walter Hesford
Midway through the eight-day Passover festival, dear friends invited my wife, me and a few others to their home for a simplified Passover Seder. They have done so for years, and we always enjoy the opportunity for a meaningful dinner together.
As usual, we were an eclectic group — Jewish, Christian, Agnostic — each person with their own mode of involvement in the powerful story of the long-ago Exodus event and of on-going liberation presented in the Passover Haggadah (order of service). Over the years I’ve been particularly attracted to the portion of the service in which we hear of four sons — one wise, one contrary, one simple and one who does not know how to ask questions.
The Sons’ Questions
The wise son asks, “What is the meaning of the laws which God has commanded to us? I want to know the meaning of all these rules,” according to Ken Royal and Lauren Royal’s “The New American Haggadah.” The wise son’s question indicates his deep commitment to his faith and its traditions.
The simple son asks “What is this all about?” He needs to be told how God freed his people from slavery, while the son who doesn’t know how to ask questions has to “learn about Judaism.”
As we took turns reading, it fittingly befell me to speak of the contrary son, who asks, “’What is the meaning of this service to you?’ Saying ‘you,’ he excludes himself from the group, he denies a basic principle. The child does not include himself in this question and acts like a stranger when attending a Seder.”
How like an academic, I thought. How like me. I was soon to demonstrate my contrariness by not partaking of a hard-boiled egg, one of the signature symbolic Seder foods. More seriously, as the service unfolded, I was distancing myself by harboring critical thoughts about Joseph, one of this Haggadah’s heroes.
Did Joseph Do Right?
Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, rises to be the Pharaoh’s advisor. He tells the Pharaoh, reports the Haggadah, “to build storehouses and fill them with grain. When years of famine struck, there was food to eat in Egypt. The Pharaoh is so grateful that when Joseph’s brothers come in search of food, he invited them and their families to settle in the area called Goshen. … Many years later, a new Pharaoh came to rule Egypt. This Pharaoh did not remember Joseph and all he had done for the Egyptian people.”
“Hmmm,” says I to myself, “What exactly had Joseph done for the Egyptian people?” I was remembering the story of the Egyptian famine as it is presented in Genesis Chapter 47: 11-27, which I taught for many years in a Bible as Literature class. Joseph does save the people from starvation, but he does so at the expense of their livestock, their land, their freedom, all of which they have to give over to the Pharaoh to gain access to food. Thus through Joseph’s administration, the Egyptians become slaves or bondsmen (depending on the translation) to the Pharaoh.
What Others Have Said about Joseph
Nahum Sarna in his JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis asserts that “Joseph’s actions cannot be measured by the moral standards of the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophetic tradition.”
Why not, since the prophetic tradition clearly condemns debt slavery? Why, for example, couldn’t Joseph have proposed the establishment of a food cooperative that didn’t enslave the people, only to have his proposal rejected by a power-hungry Pharaoh? Of course this would have undercut the irony of future events.
Robert Alter in his Genesis commentary notes that the consolidation of land and power under the Pharaoh was a historical reality. Joseph is just being credited with it and admired for his administrative brilliance by the writer of Genesis 47:11-27. This may be true, but it misses the irony that the institution of slavery credited to Joseph enslaves his own people generations later.
Ironies Can Make Religious Communities More Inclusive
The Bible is replete with ironies, reversals, contrariness. And as a contrary son of a religious tradition and as an academic, I delight in pointing them out. Fortunately, there are major branches of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and other world and Indigenous religions that are open to questions and to contrary opinions that broaden their understanding and make their religious communities more inclusive.
There is, after all, a place at the Seder table even for the contrary son.
Walter Hesford, born and educated in New England, gradually made his way West. For many years he was a professor of English at the University of Idaho, save for stints teaching in China and France. At Idaho, he taught American Literature, World Literature and the Bible as Literature. He currently coordinates an interfaith discussion group and is a member of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Moscow. He and his wife Elinor enjoy visiting with family and friends and hunting for wild flowers.