The Four Sons: Is there a wicked child? #576

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 11:30am -- Rabbi Huberman

There is a section in the Passover Haggadahthe summary of Pesach stories, rituals, songs, and prayerswhich has always troubled me.

It stems from the Biblical commandment to explain to our children the story of Passover and our journey to freedom.

Early in the Seder, we are introduced to a group of characters known as the Four Sons: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.

We are commanded in the Torah to gather together, to roast a sacrificial lamb and eat it that eveningall of it. No leftovers.

How do we ensure that the entire lamb is consumed? We would likely invite family and friends to join usand, in the process, recount the events and lessons of the Exodus story.

This eventually evolved into the Passover Seder.

I can imagine those early ancient Seders. Children gathered around the table, barely looking up from their latest game or obsession, and asking, Why are we here?

The Torah, foreseeing this generation gap, coaches parents, advising that when your children ask you What do you mean by this rite?, you shall say, It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians. (Exodus 12:2627)

Teaching children to respect tradition was not an easy task, and it's hardly less difficult now. It's one reason I believe the Haggadah categorizes sons into these four learning groups, each with a different way of absorbing history, tradition and ethical lessons.

Yet, as a child, this specific grouping of the four sons continuously troubled me.

I was the one in my Hebrew day school who was always distracted. I was frequently thrown out of the class for bad behavior. Was I the wicked one?

But isn't it interesting that, of the many children who were tossed from classrooms, many eventually grew up to exceed the expectations of their parents or teachers?

And what about the wise child? Is it always true that the ones who raised their hands fastest or highest always surpassed those whom the Haggadah designated as wicked or simple or not interested? What's really going on here?

Moreover, doesn't Judaism encourage us to ask questions of our parents and teachers? Isn't it incumbent upon us never to accept anyone's truth without first challenging it?

And what about daughters?

The late author and philosopher, Elie Wiesel, shared his own struggles with these arbitrary categories.

When I was a child, I spent many Seder evenings thinking about the four sons, he wrote. Which was I, I wondered? It was clearly good to be the first one, smart, cleancut, asking all the right questions. Some years I determined to reform, to be more like him. Was I really the Rashah, the wicked child?

It seemed like I always asked too many of the wrong questions...Then there was the simple son. The picture in the Haggadah looked benign; he was sweet. I didn't think I had too much chance of being like him.

But the son who intrigued me most was the last one. What does it mean, I wondered year after year, to not know how to ask?

We live in different times. I'm not sure today about any of these ancient categories. Indeed, I want our grandchildren to grow with components of all four.

I will encourage them to be inquisitive human beings who question and challenge. I hope they will grow to be happy, while never succumbing to the shackles of apathy or indifference.

I also believe that there are times when asking questions is insufficient. It is, rather, action that will help repair this imperfect world.

And I remain convinced that there is no such thing as a wicked child.

It is vital, then, if we are to respect the essence of the Biblical commandment, to teach Passover in a way which is appropriate to all. Some old traditions, some new ones.

Is the buzz mumble style of reading the Maxwell House Haggadah the only way to accomplish this? I don't believe so.

Is it vital to introduce new thoughts, new ideas and new concepts into the Passover ritual? Absolutely!

Who today is enslaved? How can we help? Are we in danger of losing the basic freedoms we have worked so hard to achieve?

Is the list of Dayenus listed in the Haggadah sufficient? Since the perfection of the world is ongoing, should they be upgraded? Can they be?

It is one reason why at both our family Seder and the one celebrated at CTI on the second night, we omit the traditional reading of the Four Sons in favor of an updated version.

At the end of this esermon, I've attached an alternate version of the Four Children, recently assembled by congregants interested in updating the story. There is also a link to a new take on Dayenu.

Do they speak to you? If so, wonderful. If not, that's perfectly fineperhaps you can consider some additional readings or props, whether your Seder lasts four hours, ninety minutes or a half hour. Google can serve as an effective backup rabbi.

The Four Sons may have had their role in ancient times, but in a world of video games, tweets, and short attention spans, do they still speak to us?

Our tradition encourages us to use whatever means we can to speak to children of each generation. And in so doing, we reinforce our timeless and ancient sensitivity to the suffering of others.

We also rededicate ourselves, as we have for thousands of years, towards alleviating slavery in our time.

As our Shema prayer implies, you don't need to be a rabbi or Hebrew school teacher to convey these messages. Each parent and grandparent, through their own experience, is a life master.

As we now realize, each child is different. And there are so many wonderful and creative ways to inspire this and future generations.

Indeed, over the centuries, those four sons have grown up.

Perhaps it's time to ask ourselves, has our Passover Seder?

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THE FOUR CHILDREN

Parents tell the Passover story to their children in different ways. The Haggadah tells us that's because each child learns differently.

The Wise Child wants to know every detail of the Seder.

She steps forward, assuming her opinion counts.

She finds personal meaning in the tradition and ritual.

She finds secrets in the empty spaces between the letters of the Torah.

She claims a place even if the men forget her.

Some call her wise and accepting. We can call her creative and assertive. We welcome assertiveness to inspire us to act.

 

The Wicked Child is rebellious, challenging every simplistic answer.

He asks too many questions.

He is not content to remain in his prescribed place.

He breaks the mold.

He frightens the status quo.

Some call him wicked and rebellious. We call him daring and revolutionary. We welcome rebellion to make us uneasy.

 

The Simple Child accepts what she is given without asking why.

She trusts easily and believes what she is told.

She prefers waiting and watching over seeking and acting.

She believes that redemption from Egypt was the final act of freedom.

She follows in the wake of others.

Some call her simple and naive. We call her the one whose eyes wait to be opened. We welcome the contented one to appreciate what may yet be.

 

The Quiet Child listens and does not know how to ask.

He obeys and does not question.

He accepts men's definitions of the world.

He has not found his own voice.

He is invisible.

Some find him subservient or oppressed. We welcome the quiet one to sit with us and experiencing the Jewish community.

Shabbat shalom, vkol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman