Saturday, March 21, 2009

“The Torah spoke of four sons: One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple, and one does not know how to ask”

A Hebrew version of this article can be found at:

We have become accustomed to relate to the midrash about the four sons with profound gravity and seriousness. Some find in it the kernel of a panacea for all of the problems of Jewish education, a kind of “road-map” for the Jewish People’s continued spiritual existence. I would like to suggest a less ambitious interpretative strategy.

Note the location of the midrash of the four sons in the Haggadah. Two passages appear immediately before it: The incident involving Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues who celebrated the Seder in Benei Brak, and the words of R. Elazar ben Azaryah, who described himself as being “as one seventy years of age.” Next come the four sons, followed by the halakhic discussion, “One might start from the New Moon.”

These four passages appear consecutively; what is their common theme? The answer is clear: None of these passages comes to tell us about the Exodus from Egypt, none of them adds any information to what we have already learned from the section “We were slaves.” Their purpose is to tell us something about the manner in which the commandment to retell the story of the Exodus should be observed.

Before we get to the main section of Maggid ­– the retelling – before the many derashot dealing with the Exodus itself, the Haggadah wishes to tell us something about how we should go about performing the commandment of, You shall tell your son. The core message is quite plain; the main principle has already been set out in the end of “We were slaves”:

And even if all of us are wise, all of us understanding, all of us aged, all of us knowledgeable about the Torah, we are still commanded to retell the Exodus from Egypt. And the more one speaks of the Exodus from Egypt the better.

Rabbi Eliezer and his distinguished band of friends come to demonstrate how one is supposed to carry out the principle of “the more one speaks the better” in practice: “They spoke of the Exodus from Egypt all through that night, until their students came and said, ‘Our Rabbis, the time has come for the recitation of the morning Shema.’”

Next comes R. Eliezer ben Azariyah to explain why the Exodus must be mentioned at night. The four sons now make their appearance. Next, the editor of the Haggadah emphasizes the importance of devoting many hours to retelling the story of the Exodus by entertaining the theoretical possibility that people could begin performing the commandment from the first of Nissan. All of these passages aim at instilling us with readiness to retell the story of the Exodus in the best way possible, i.e., for many hours into the night.

Here we are confronted with a very important practical difficulty. How are we to engage our sons and daughters – who are, after all, the “target audience” of the Seder – in the commandment of You shall tell your son for hours on end? Perhaps our children are not really interested in a long, drawn-out discussion?

The four sons illustrate four typical responses of children to our educational efforts during the Seder. Their responses are typical, but there is no reason to assume that any one particular child will always behave like the wise son, or like the wicked son. It all depends upon his age, his mood, his wakefulness, and his stomach. If he did not take a nap in the afternoon, last year’s wise son can become this year’s wicked son. The son who does not know how to ask questions can turn into the wise son, thanks to the efforts of a talented teacher. What then is the advice which the Haggadah offers us in dealing with our children’s various behaviors?

The wise son: What does he say? “What are the statutes and ordinances and laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” And you shall tell him the laws of the Paschal sacrifice [up to the detail]: “No desert is eaten after the afikoman.”

Here we have important messages for both parent and child. The child wants to behave appropriately and win praise. The Haggadah tells him what to do: If someone wants to look intelligent, he must ask many detailed questions. The message for the parent is no less important: If the child begins asking complicated and perhaps even annoying questions, the parent should not throw his hands up in despair, crying out, “God Almighty, this kid is driving me crazy!” Rather, the parent must take advantage of the opportunity offered by the child’s curiosity and teach the child as much as possible, “And you shall tell him the laws of the Paschal sacrifice [up to the detail]: ‘No desert is eaten after the afikoman.’” Such a parent will, no doubt, need to gird himself with patience and listening skills.

The dialogue with the wicked son is a different story. We must first understand exactly who this “wicked son” is who appears in the Haggadah. Is he a little heretic, a reincarnation of Spinoza or of Elisha ben Avuyah? Or perhaps the “wicked son” is a lowly traitor who collaborates with Hamas and Islamic Jihad? To my mind, we are dealing with a much less shocking situation. In his commentary on the Haggadah, Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Ashvili, (known by the acronym RITVA d. 1330), formulates the wicked son’s question in these words:

What is this bother that you trouble us with every year, delaying our feast?

In other words, the wicked son is asking: “Nu, so when do we eat already?” The wicked son’s impatience teaches us that it is most inappropriate for one to announce one’s hunger to the other participants in the Seder while they are engaged in discussing the Exodus. Thus is solved the famous question regarding the differences between the wise and wicked sons. They both ask exactly the same question (“What are you doing?”), only that the wicked son speaks curtly in order to have the meal served as quickly as possible.

What, then, is the proper response to the wicked son? If a child complains that he is hungry, are we to “set his teeth on edge”? I believe that the Haggadah offers its own harsh response in order to spare us the need for such unpleasantness. We do not have to answer the evening’s “wicked son” – the Haggadah has already done that for us by proclaiming to the world that a person who complains that he is hungry at the Seder is behaving like a “wicked son” who has “removed himself from the community.” The Haggadah reminds us all that those who wish to be redeemed must demonstrate patience.

It should be no problem to guess the meaning of the passage regarding the “simple son.” He asks a simple question and receives a simple answer. If a child asks, “What’s that?” and we bury him under a long lecture describing “the laws of the Paschal sacrifice [up to the detail]: ‘No desert is eaten after the afikoman’” our efforts shall be wasted. In such a case, it is better to answer plainly: With a mighty arm, the Lord took me out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

Finally, we get to the one “who does not know how to ask.” Here we are not dealing with a child who refuses to participate in the Seder, rather he is not sure about how to participate. There are many different reasons why a child may not know how to ask: perhaps he is shy, or he thinks he already understands everything and is left with nothing to ask, or he might feel that the Seder is aimed towards his younger siblings and that it would be inappropriate to interject with questions that are of interest only to the older children. In any case, it is incumbent upon the parent to “open up for him,” a way must be found for him to participate in the Seder as an educational experience. This certainly demands that the parent be attentive to how the “passive” child understands his own role in the evening’s activities.

Each and every child can pass through a series of transformations in the course of the Seder, moving from archetype to archetype of the four sons. A particular child may begin as the one “who does not know how to ask.” When the parent tries to open up the discussion for him and becomes a bit long-winded, the child’s stomach might get the best of him, making him a “wicked son.” After a few minutes, he might compose himself and ask “simple” questions. Finally, as maggid is reaching its end and the meal is almost served, the child may allow himself to let loose with an onslaught of “wise” and complicated questions, which leave even the most experienced and learned of grandparents struggling for answers! There is no escaping it: Our duty is to remain flexible enough to deal with any educational challenges with which our children face us at the Seder table.

© Berel Dov Lerner


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