Rav Yehoshua Weisberg

Blunt his teeth, instructs my Haggadah, when a child asks “What is this worship to you?” 

I can think of a few other responses to a child who doesn’t identify with my worship. I might try to understand why she feels alienated. I might tell my story in a more relevant way, to bring her in to the worldview that matters so much to me. I might also have to ask myself some tough questions about what my worship really does mean to me, and why I have struggled to pass that conviction on to my children. 

With so many options, why “blunt his teeth?” 

The phrase appears in Ezekiel 18:2 in the context of the prophet’s teaching that we are wrong to think that a child will pay the price for the error of a father’s ways,

מַה לָּכֶם אַתֶּם מֹשְׁלִים אֶת הַמָּשָׁל הַזֶּה עַל אַדְמַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אָבוֹת יֹאכְלוּ בֹסֶר וְשִׁנֵּי הַבָּנִים תִקְהֶינָה

What do you mean by quoting this proverb upon the soil of Israel, “Parents eat sour grapes and their children’s teeth are blunted”?

If you have ever eaten an unripe grape, you haven’t forgotten the experience (the technical term is astringency) of your mouth puckering up. 

So, why does the Haggadah instruct us to set the wicked son’s teeth on edge?  Isn’t parents setting their children’s teeth on edge, exactly what Ezekiel exhorts us not to do? 

The answer that occurs to me lies in the context of the verse. In chapter 18, the prophet teaches that a person, ultimately, is judged alone:

הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַחֹטֵ֖את הִ֣יא תָמ֑וּת בֵּ֞ן לֹֽא־יִשָּׂ֣א  בַּעֲוֺ֣ן הָאָ֗ב וְאָב֙ לֹ֤א יִשָּׂא֙ בַּעֲוֺ֣ן הַבֵּ֔ן צִדְקַ֤ת הַצַּדִּיק֙ עָלָ֣יו תִּֽהְיֶ֔ה וְרִשְׁעַ֥ת הָרָשָׁ֖ע] עָלָ֥יו תִּֽהְיֶֽה׃

The person who sins, he alone shall die. A child shall not share the burden of a parent’s guilt, nor shall a parent share the burden of a child’s guilt; the righteousness of the righteous shall be accounted to him alone, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be accounted to him alone.

The wicked son of a righteous man, teaches Ezekiel, just as the righteous son of a wicked man, is judged only for what he has done with his life, including what he has done with his father’s choices. His freedom is bound with his responsibility. 

So, perhaps the Haggadah is teaching that to the son who asserts that he does not share his father’s values, who asks “what do these actions mean to you,” to you and not to him, rather than argue with the child, a parents should confirm the child’s independence –the very independence with which he threatens his father.  

As if to say, Son, I have made my choices and you will have to make yours. At the end of the day, though, your teeth will be set on edge not because of the grapes I have eaten, but because of those that you pick for yourself. You are old enough to take responsibility for your actions and if you choose to cut yourself off from your people I can’t stop you. But know, that if you do cut yourself off, God may not save you from yourself… “ואילו היה שם לא היה נגאל”.

Earlier in the Tanakh, Joshua used similar words as he addressed the people of Israel before his death… 

וְאִם רַע בְּעֵינֵיכֶם לַעֲבֹד אֶת יְקֹוָק בַּחֲרוּ לָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת מִי תַעֲבֹדוּן אִם אֶת אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר עָבְדוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר בעבר מֵעֵבֶר הַנָּהָר וְאִם אֶת אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹשְׁבִים בְּאַרְצָם וְאָנֹכִי וּבֵיתִי נַעֲבֹד אֶת יְקֹוָק: יהושע פרק כד:טו 

…Choose this day whom you are going to serve—the gods that your forefathers served beyond the Euphrates, those of the Amorites in whose land you are settled; but I and my household will serve the God.”

Joshua collects the Jewish people before his death and tells them the story of their Exodus. He tells the story and confronts them with a choice. You are free, he tells them, but you must take responsibility for the consequences. Not by coincidence, the Haggadah quotes Joshua 24, as a foundational text.

When the wicked son challenges his father’s faith, the Haggadah reminds them both what Passover is all about –freedom. Freedom from slavery and freedom to make choices. Seder night is the opportunity for parents to tell their children about their choice to remain Jewish. But as Joshua and Ezekiel teach, each child will eventually inherit freedom. At one point it is too late to threaten, convince and ignore. And all a parent can do is to ask him that she not take her freedom lightly, to remind her what a great responsibility it is.