Passover Insight: The 4 Sons

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Dear friends,

The 4 SonsI would like to share with you an interpretation of the ”Four Children” of the Passover Haggadah, which I found to be personally meaningful. According to Rabbi Yehudah Leib Chasman, a noted teacher of musar – Torah ethics, the ”Four Children” should not be understood as four distinct personalities, as the traits exemplified by all of them struggle within each of us. One moment we are the wise child, the next moment the wicked child; one instant we are the simple child, the next instant we are unable to ask.

The wicked child says: ”Of what purpose is this avodah to you?” Avodah means ”service” or ”work.” This child has noticed that the entire spectrum of the Passover mitzvos (precepts) – from cleaning the house of chametz (leavened food) to the detailed rituals of the Passover Seder – consists of avodah. The child cannot help but wonder: ”Is this how we celebrate the Festival of Freedom? The entire celebration seems to consist of nothing but ”service”. According to this child’s understanding, the mitzvos of the Torah seem to impose a discipline which limits his or her personal freedom; therefore on the night that we celebrate the birth of our people and the beginning of our journey to Mt. Sinai, this child separates from the community of Israel, saying: ”Of what purpose is this service to you?”

We say of Torah that ”she is a tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18). It is a poetic phrase, but if we think about it deeply, we realize that Torah is called a ”tree of life,” because she extends her ”branches” into every area of life. Within each area of human existence, the Torah provides an avodah – a sacred service and discipline which elevates and sanctifies that aspect of life. However, it is not an easy task. A friend of mine with conservative political views once commented: ”I admire the Torah’s emphasis on discipline and service with regard to our sexuality and our other physical desires. It’s just the medicine that our permissive, liberal society needs! But I must confess that I’m troubled by the Torah’s demands in the economic sphere. On the whole, I favor ‘laissez-faire’ capitalism as the best economic system, yet the Torah deprives us of much of our free choice in this area. For example, charity – a free willed gift – becomes tzedakah – an act of justice which the poor are entitled to. and what’s really shocking is that the Torah encourages the agencies of Jewish government to get involved in the collection and distribution of tzedakah. The Torah even gives the courts the right to confiscate my property, if I don’t give tzedakah funds to the needy!”

However, I have a friend with progressive political views who told me: ”I love the Torah’s emphasis on social and economic justice, and how the mitzvos train us to share all of our wealth and resources. But I resent the Torah’s demands regarding the functions of my body. I feel that my body is mine; it’s my business how I eat, and how and when I express myself sexually.”

The Torah encompasses every aspect of our existence. Yet, if we’re honest with ourselves, we can probably find at least one area of life where we cherish our individual autonomy, and therefore experience some resentment at the Torah’s attempt to influence and discipline our behavior in that particular area of our existence. We find ourselves saying: ”What is this avodah to you? These ancient rituals do not speak to me; you can perform them if you want to, but I prefer to go my own way.” And the Haggadah responds to our inner, rebellious voice: ”To you, but not to himself. And since he has disassociated himself from the community, he denies the essential principle (of Torah).”

Why does the Haggadah state that this leads to a denial of ”the essential principle”? I believe that an answer can be found in the very first essential principle given to humanity at the dawn of creation:

“And God took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden – L’avdah ole’shamrah – to serve it and to guard it.”
Genesis 2:15

We were created l’avdah – to serve! As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments: ”The earth was not created as a gift to you – you have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration as God’s earth, and everything on it as God’s creation…” (The Nineteen Letters – Letter Four). Moreover, in the very next verse, the Creator limits human autonomy over the Garden with the following dietary restriction:

“Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat…”
Genesis 2:16,17

This limitation was to remind the human being that the Creator is the Owner and Sovereign of the entire world – including the human being. For the task of the human being is to be the caretaker of God’s earth and to further the Divine purpose for all creation. However, the Torah records that the human being developed resentment over this restriction – this act of discipline which limited human autonomy. For the human being has free will, and as a result, a ”leavening” process took place within the human spirit, causing the human being to be filled with pride and arrogance. Just as yeast causes the dough to expand and become leavened – chametz, so too pride causes the human spirit to expand and become chametz. When the human spirit takes on the nature of chametz, it views everything in creation as being created only to serve the human being – to increase human gratification. Thus, instead of serving and giving, the human being becomes a taker, ”taking of the fruit and eating it.” According to one tradition, the forbidden fruit was the fruit of an ancient wheat tree. And when human teeth bit into this fruit, humanity lost the ”Garden.”

On the night of the Seder, when the rebellious voice within us calls out: ”What is this avodah to you,” we are reenacting the drama of the Garden. It is a voice which is denying the essential principle, which is that each and every one of us was placed on this earth l’avdah – to serve. For if we believe that there’s an area of life where we don’t have to serve – where we do not need discipline – then in that area of life, we become ”takers” – biting into the fruit for our own selfish gratification. Thus, the Haggadah adds the following rebuke to the wicked child:

“Blunt his teeth and tell him: ”It is because of this that the Compassionate One did so for me when I went out from Egypt.” For me, and not for him: If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

These are the very teeth that bit into the forbidden fruit. ”Blunt those teeth,” says the Haggadah, for if he’s not ready to serve, he will not leave Egypt with us. The sages of the Torah’s mystical tradition teach us that, on Passover, we collectively begin the journey back to the Garden of Eden. And that journey begins with a readiness to serve. All of the mitzvos of Passover are training us to give and to serve. We clean our homes and property from all chametz – a reminder that we are to serve with all our possessions. And we do not take chametz into our mouths – a reminder that we are to serve with our bodies and all our physical desires. The wheat we eat is unleavened bread – free of the arrogance of human pride. In this way, we also do a tikun – a fixing – for the eating of the fruit in the Garden, which was eaten in the spirit of chametz. On the first night of Passover, we are to perform acts of avodah – service, and thereby remember our true purpose on this earth. We therefore begin the Seder with an act of giving, and we proclaim:

“Let all who are hungry, come and eat; let all who are in need, come and celebrate the Passover.”

But the ”wicked child” within us still has an argument: ”You speak of great and noble ideas, but do they lead to freedom? On the contrary, imposing discipline in all areas of life develops a sense of servitude, not freedom. In what way is Passover, the holiday of ”our liberation”? It seems that all we have done is to exchange one form of servitude for another!”

To this child, we respond that the ultimate freedom is the freedom to fulfill our potential as human beings who are created in the Divine Image. The Compassionate One is the ultimate Giver; therefore we too have the potential to give and to serve.

Our sages elaborate on this idea in the following story: The Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) relates that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Tzadok were at a celebration given by their teacher, Rabbi Gamliel, in honor of his son. Rabbi Gamliel personally served them, and his three disciples began to discuss whether it was proper for them to remain sitting and have Rabbi Gamliel, their teacher, personally serve them. Rabbi Tzadok said: ”You are talking about the honor due to people. What about the honor due to the Almighty? He causes the winds to blow and the rain to fall which enables all forms of vegetation to grow. The Almighty brings food to people; all the more so, should even the greatest person serve others.”

Therefore, when the voice within us asks, ”what is this service to you;” we answer: ”This service liberates us from an enslavement to our selfish desires, and gives us the freedom to be truly human. And through this service, we, the Children of Israel, leave the land of spiritual enslavement and begin the journey back to the ‘Garden’ – the place where all human beings will be free to serve and to give.”

A happy and kosher Passover,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

This essay is dedicated to two friends who are devoted to serving and giving: Yiftach and Zeesie Paltowitz.

P.S. For further study, I recommend the Art Scroll Musar Haggadah, which served as a source for some of the above ideas.


An Excerpt from the ”Hirsch Haggadah”

”We shall thank You with a new song for our redemption and for the deliverance of our souls.”
Passover Haggadah

The noted 19th century sage and biblical commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes the following regarding the Passover theme of redemption:

As for the redemption of Yisrael and humanity – though mankind has expended its entire store of virility and morality and though Yisrael has forfeited its independence, energy, even the consciousness of its mission as well as the power and strength to carry it out, yet: ”their Redeemer lives” (see Job 19:25). The One Who lives forever, the God of Yisrael and the Redeemer of mankind, He is their Goel (Redeemer). Every human soul that has lapsed, every Jewish man or woman who has opted out of his or her mission, humanity forfeiting its destiny, Yisrael not attaining theirs – they are His loss!” When a human being suffers,” Rabbi Meir teaches us, ”the Divine Presence expresses it thus: ‘My head is heavy, My arm is heavy”’ (Sanhedrin 46a). And in the words of Isaiah: ”In all their troubles, He is troubled” (63:9).

”Hashem will not cast off His People, nor forsake His inheritance” (Psalms 94:14). He has life for every death, strength for all weakness, freedom and independence for any enslavement. Mankind and the Jewish People are His! He rises up on their behalf when they are prostrated. He is their Father, redeeming them from bondage and perdition to freedom and life.

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The ”Hirsch Haggadah” stresses the universal message of Passover, and it is published by Feldheim. (800 237-7149)