Monday, April 06, 2009

Afikomen story

Here is a story that is told to little Jewish children when they are in school. It is told of different people, though I remember it told of the Vilna Gaon. It goes as follows: Little Elija (or whoever) stole the afikomen from his father as per the usual custom. When the time came to eat it the father asked for the afikomen back. Little Elija demanded an unusually large ransom in exchange for the return of the afikomen. The father - almost too quickly - agreed to the demands. So the father promises a gift and Little Elija produces the Matzoh.

Everyone is feeling a bit smug when the time comes for the father to distribute the matzoh. But the father refuses to give a piece to Little Elija. The father demands that in exchange for a piece of the afikomen, he be released from his obligation to produce a present. Not one to be outdone, Little Elija then produced a small piece of the original afikomen and declared that he had anticipated this, and broke off a piece before the exchange.

That story is supposed to illustrate how clever the Vilna Gaon was as a child. But there are a number of problems with this. Foremost, Little Elija negotiated in bad faith. The father was negotiating for what he presumed to be the whole afikomen which he left for the child to "steal". But the child was only negotiating for part of the afikomen. Clearly he intended to keep part of it for himself. So he was dishonest from the beginning. Clever, yes. Dishonest, definitely! This kid also clearly grew up in a household where there was no trust between father and son, as the father was also negotiating in bad faith. The usual assumption is that the father will distribute the afikomen to the whole household. But the father demonstrated that he did not intend on doing this unless he was released from his promise.

Was this kind of negotiating normal in the household? Who taught such intense distrust for your own family? Was there some life lesson that they were supposed to be teaching each other?

So we have one of those classic stories that we tell all Jewish children that essentially describes the house that one of our sages grew up in as a den of crooks and theives. Cleverness apparently consists in figuring out how to cheat your father before he cheats you.

What kind of messages are we sending to young Jewish children?

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