In the Pesach Hagadah there is a chinuch statement that may just be one of the strangest you will ever hear. It is a piece of child-rearing advice that if you would ask any teacher, parenting expert or Rabbi about – none of them would offer you this advice – but we find that it is written in the Hagadah black on white. You come across this parenting advice every year and when you read it you wonder, “Can it be that the author of the Hagadah wrote this?”
The Hagadah states that one of the four sons who attends the Seder night is the rasha, the evil son. When you have an unruly son who is speaking in a rebellious and condescending way, what does the Hagadah tell you to do?
“Af atah emor lo.” You respond to his sarcasm by doing what? “Hakeh et shinav.” You knock out his teeth. What kind of advice is this? What parent, teacher or Rabbi would advise that if your son is not behaving, the solution is to simply knock out his teeth. Would anyone ever say that? Is this sound advice?
It must be that the author of the Hagadah is teaching us something else? What is the lesson behind this bizarre parenting advice?
Our Rabbis explain that the author of the Hagadah is actually referring to a verse in Sefer Yirimiyah that states: “Avot achlu boser – fathers have eaten unripe grapes.” When a parent eats something that is not good, such as an unripe grape, what is the result? “Ve’shiney vanim tikhena – then the teeth of the children shall be set on edge. The child’s teeth are going to fall out.” What does this mean?
The navi is telling us that if a parent makes mistakes the child will usually be the product of that mistake. “Avot achlu boser.” If the parents are “consuming” the wrong foods that are harmful then the outcome will be – “ve’shiney vanim tikhenah.” The child’s teeth are going to fall out.
It turns out that the Hagadah is teaching the parents a profound lesson in child rearing. The author of the Hagadah is saying, “Af atah.” You are also the reason why your child’s teeth are falling out. You are part of the reason why he looks the way he does and behaves the way he does.
The average parent cannot handle this fact and may even deny it – but our sages are clearly teaching us that the challenging children are like the prophets who are here to provide a message to their parents. The message is: “Af atah.” Before you blame the child, you must look at yourself and into yourself to determine if there was something you did in your life that may have been harmful to you – and to your child by extension.
Parents often wonder, “Why is my child this way?” And they provide themselves with a number of justifications: “It must be because of the friends he hangs around. It must be that his teachers aren’t influencing him the proper way. The internet and the smartphone is killing my kid.”
While all those things are true, in addition to the dilemmas a parent faces in this generation, he must remember that his child is also product of what he “consumed” so to speak. The child is a product of some error that took place in the life of the parent. Hashem sends the challenging child a reminder that perhaps something the parent did was not done right.
So when you wonder, “How did this happen?” Often the answer could very well be, “Af Atah.” The reason lies within you.