Among the different groups of four in the Haggadah we find the four sons. Each is different. One is wise, the second is wicked, the third is simple and the fourth is unable even to ask. The Torah speaks to each child, notes Rabbi Yehuda Kosbeh, for Hashem is “All encompassing” (Sha-dai) and has invested enough in the Torah to reach each individual child in the manner best suited to him. Each child, no matter his current status, is part of both our nuclear and of our national family, and we are not to despair of bringing our challenging child back to the family.
While each of these sons and the dialogue we are to have with them is worthy of study, we will focus today mostly on the fourth son and the questions arising from the Haggadah’s instructions to us. While we want to know exactly who this child is, we are disturbed by the answer we give to this son who appears so innocent. We give him the same answer we give the second, wicked son, albeit we do not add the harsh rebuke at the end. What is even more puzzling is that the answer we give both these sons quote the actual command of the Torah, “Vehigadetah levincha – and you shall tell your son on that day – leimor – saying, ‘It is because of this that Hashem did so for me when I went out of Egypt.’” That is the entire point of the Haggadah, the telling. Finally, the Haggadah tells us, since he himself cannot ask, “At (alef-tov) petach lo – You open him up.” Who is to “open” this child and how are we to open him?
But lest you think that the one who does not know to ask refers only to a child, the Maayan LaMoed reminds us that millions of people today, including many adults, unfortunately, know so little about our Jewish heritage that they have no idea what to ask or where to begin. Rabbi Spero, in Touched by Our Story concretizes this idea for us through the immigrant experience. The first generation came to this country with the traditions and love of Judaism they brought from their old country. These can be likened to the wise children of the Seder. However, their children wanted to become more Americanized and rebelled against the old lifestyle. They are referred to as the wicked son. Their children, caught between “zayde” and father, are confused and ask, “What’s going on here.” But that next generation who no longer has even the grandfather to learn from is so completely removed from the religion and traditions of his family that he doesn’t even know what questions, if any, to ask.
It is these lost Jews that the Haggadah addresses and tells us to find an opening, a way of reaching them, writes Rabbi Gamliel Horowitz in Tiv HaTorah. Use the Torah, written in the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet from Alef to Tov, and find a way to make a connection for him. They are like little, sensitive children who require a mother’s special touch. Don’t pontificate. Just become interested in them, through playing a game or telling a story until they themselves become interested and curious. Find a way to begin a dialogue even if it begins as an argument. As Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein writes, the goal is leimor, to continue the transmission of the message. That’s why the exact words are repeated here, for the message is that we must transmit the story and the obligations of our exodus from Egypt from generation to generation, so that these “children” can then teach their children, writes Rabbi Avraham Schorr in Halekach V’halibuv. Leimor is not merely speech for the purpose of transmitting factual information, continues Rabbi Schorr. It involves the transmission of an emotional bond, so that Hashem’s word, “I am the Lord your God Who took you out of Egypt,” is not only intellectual information, but more importantly, a means of creating love and reverence for the Almighty. The ability to convey emotion through speech is what differentiates Man from other creatures, some of whom may “speak”. Our mission at the Seder is to make the connection to our redemption from Egypt relevant to each participant, a belief that will lead to gratitude to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and to an acceptance of His role in our lives.
Rabbi Shimshon Pincus offers a delightful Midrash that then segues into building the relationship that child will have with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. The story begins with the plague of the wild animals. Hashem brought the lions and the bears to Egypt, and when the Egyptians saw the dangerous animals, they locked themselves in their houses. What did Hashem do? He brought a creature with a long arm that got into an opening in the building and unlocked the door. Then the bear came in and crushed the Egyptian. The child will undoubtedly now ask why Hashem did this to the Egyptian, and the father will answer because the Egyptian was cruel to the Jews, and Hashem cares about us and what happens to us. “Tatele,” Daddy continues, “And Hashem cares about you too, and everything you do. He loves to hear you say Modeh Ani nicely in the morning. Then all the heavens are joyous. And when you don’t say it nicely, all the angels are sad.” In this way, the father is instilling in his son that Hashem loves him and is always watching him, and when the child grows up, he will understand that Hashem is still observing him and his actions.
Begin the dialogue when the child is young, and don’t give up even on the “wicked” son. But especially, don’t give up on the grandson of the wicked son because he has no background to connect him to Torah. That’s why the answer to the wicked son and to his grandson is the same, for one is derived from the other, writes Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov. If you teach your children when they are young, their minds are open to absorbing the messages.
The dialogue becomes all important and must begin in childhood, not just during the Seder, but through our daily lives, writes Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon. Rabbi Salomon quotes a verse from Yirmiyahu, “Faith was lost, it was eliminated from their mouths.” However, instead of the usual interpretation that the loss of faith came first and people no longer talked about God, Rabbi Solomon cites the interpretation of Rav Simcha Zissel, the Alter of Kelm, who interprets the verse in the reverse, that if we do not talk about faith regularly, faith will eventually be lost. Therefore, it is important that when something good happens, you express gratitude to HaKadosh Baruch Hu Who does for us even though we are unworthy. Your mouth will thus create an atmosphere of emunah, of faith, within your home.
We now turn our discussion to a more homiletical interpretation of the four sons. First, we will simply note that the Sefas Emes sees a connection between the four sons and the other groups of four in the Haggadah. Each son parallels one of the four languages of redemption which correspond to the four cups of wine and ultimately to four parts that coexist within ourselves at different stages of our lives.
The Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom, writes that the wise son represents that part of us that wants to elevate ourselves and asks why, although I observe the mitzvoth, am I not on the spiritual level of the tzadikim. At other times we become discouraged and cynical, asking why doesn’t Hashem protect me and help me succeed when I fall. This lack of faith is the catalyst for the response that if he were in Egypt he would not have been redeemed. After all, that generation was surrounded by forty nine levels of depravity, and yet did not lose faith in the redemption. The “simple” son the Netivot Shalom interprets as the apathetic son, for the letters of tam reversed read met, dead. His question of, “What’s this (all about),” equals today’s, “Who cares.” Finally, the son who doesn’t ask is totally closed up and feels nothing. We must find a way to open him up again and restore in him some simple faith that will ultimately reinvigorate him.
This vision of the one who cannot ask is given a different slant by Rav Moshe Feinstein. He explains that this man is not ignorant of Judaism. In fact, he observes all the laws, but he does them lifelessly, by rote, neither understanding their significance nor caring about their significance. The Haggadah tells us that we must engage this one and open a conversation with him so that his observance becomes meaningful, for our passionate observance of the mitzvot associated with the first Passover earned us the merit of redemption.
The Shvilei Pinchas, Rabbi Friedman, Rosh Yeshiva of Belz, develops this idea further. These four personality profiles are all aspects of the father that the children inherit and mimic. Therefore, when the Torah tells us to teach them, the children, it is also telling us to work on ourselves, teach otam but also atem. How we perform the mitzvot will have an impact on our children as they observe us. Therefore, we must initiate a dialogue within ourselves for self-improvement if we are to impact our children. When you are able to transmit passion with faith, you will impact yourself as well as your children.
Yet another interpretation is offered by Leket Sifsei Kodesh. The parallels now include the four exiles our nation has suffered. The fourth son, the one who doesn’t know how to ask, parallels our fourth exile which we are currently experiencing and whose end is hidden from us. What we need to understand, even if we do not know what or how to ask, is that all that Hashem did for us in the redemption from Egypt was a prelude and preparation for the future final redemption. Therefore, I pray only that Hashem, You look within me and give me what I need, open me up, for I do not know how to pray and what to pray for. Further, adds Rabbi Meislish in Sichot Ba’avodat Hashem, open me up to feel so that I feel a connection to You and am not just going through the motions of mitzvah performance. This is a Tefillah all of us can inset at this point in the Seder.
Or perhaps the scene is different. As Rav Epstein presents us, the son who can’t ask is perhaps being bullied and made fun of for his faith and Torah observance. He doesn’t know how to respond to his tormentors. Teach him how to reply, that “Because of this Hashem redeemed me from Egypt.”
Our job is to wake ourselves up so that we can draw the children in with love and teach them and ourselves how to extricate ourselves through faith from the narrow straits (meitzarim) of difficult situations. We must remember that just as the Egyptian redemption came in one moment, so too can our personal and national redemption come in the blink of an eye. May our mouths continue to speak (pe sach) of Hashem and His place in our lives so that He will see fit to bring the final redemption speedily in our day.Download PDF