“It will be that your son will say to you, ‘What is this?’” Exodus 13:14
Parashat Bo is one of the seminal Torah portions. In it, the Jewish people are finally free to leave Egypt, the land which has subjugated them for 210 years. They openly defy their oppressors by bringing a sacrifice of a lamb (one of the gods of the Egyptians) and eating it, showing that they no longer bow to the whims of their masters.
There is also a phrase in this Torah portion, which is used by the Simple Son on Pesach. He asks, “What is this?” – seemingly a basic question relating to the pageantry involved in the Seder.
A more careful look at the context of these verses show he is asking a very different question. Prior to the question, we are told about the commandment of taking a first-born ass and redeeming it for a sheep. The basic idea of redeeming the first-born animals is that just as the Jewish people are called the firstborn of God and were redeemed, so too the firstborn animals are redeemed to reflect this closeness. This may work for a lamb – after all the Jewish people are compared to a lamb — but an ass is an impure animal, one which has no holiness attached to it. How can such an animal be redeemed?
The commentator Sforno explains that the ass is a metaphor for Pharaoh. Even the man who inflicted such cruelty on the Jewish people has the potential for redemption. Even he could have repented, even he could have been a different, better human being. There is no person who has gone too far and cannot come back.
This is the message of the Simple Son in the Haggadah. He looks at his life, at his withdrawal from his community and his faith and he says, “How can I come back to this? I have strayed too far, I am too disconnected.” The answer to him is that there is hope for everyone; even the Pharaohs of this world have potential to develop.
It is when we deny that possibility of change within us that we are truly lost. This is the message of the Simple Son: our humanity rests not only in what we do, but in our potential for change, for development and for constant growth.
RABBI STEVEN DANSKY