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The Four Sons Meet Again

The “sons” are four types of Jews, and even the most distant, the most alienated, is still a son of our People

 

We’ve been through a year of great and unfamiliar challenges, particularly in the realm of chinuch, which has, more than ever, found its center of gravity in our homes. And now as we return to the Seder table and the four sons gather together once again, let us turn to the Haggadah for guidance on how to relate to these sons that we meet throughout the year.

Through all our generations, these four characters have been among us, encountering, confronting, clashing with each other. And the father — the father of the nation or the personal father at the head of the table — is asked, required in fact, to speak to each of them in his own language. With each new generation, these sons find a new style of expression, but the essence of their psychological makeup remains the same as ever. Each personality is rooted in one of the Haggadah’s four prototypes.

How will we identify each son in today’s world? What is in their hearts, and in what terms do they speak in these modern or postmodern times?

The Haggadah categorizes these four types as the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t know to ask. Artists through the ages have illustrated the wise son as a bearded, rabbinical figure, and in sharp contrast, the wicked son as a wild, empty-headed youth of the sort you might find hanging out on street corners. But this is certainly not what the Haggadah’s author had in mind. The wicked son of the Haggadah could very well be brilliant, perhaps even more so than the wise son, and he might have all the refined manners of polite society. He could be an upstanding citizen making positive contributions to to humanity. Nevertheless, by the Jewish scale of values represented in the Haggadah, he is considered wicked.

Because in the Haggadah’s value system, a person’s worth is measured by the strength of his link to his People’s tradition, to the Torah. Let us examine the four categories according to this criterion, and we will quickly see that they typify four personality profiles, each with its characteristic attitude:

  1. One who is strongly identified and also seeks to understand the Torah (the wise son).
  2. One who is alienated and makes a point of being antagonistic (the wicked son).
  3. One who just asks questions, with no particular goal in mind (the simple son).
  4. One who shows no interest at all (the son who doesn’t know to ask).

How, then, to initiate a positive dialogue with each of the four types that make up the mosaic of our nation? A dialogue that addresses each on his level, in the emotional and intellectual language he understands, finding a pathway to each “son”?

The wise son is engaged; he feels part of the national Jewish experience. He identifies with the Jewish way of life, with the tradition, with the history and goals of his People, and he behaves accordingly. But he would also like to understand on a deep level and strengthen his connection further. And therefore, his question is, “What are the testimonials, statutes, and laws…?”

The father answers him in kind. In order to understand why we must fulfill the mitzvos in our times, we must return to the starting point: Yetzias Mitzrayim. There, on the eve of their liberation from slavery, Bnei Yisrael were commanded to bring the Pesach offering — to slaughter the gods of the Egyptians. This was a declaration of war against idolatry, an act also geared to uproot it from the hearts of Bnei Yisrael themselves.

This war isn't over yet. Idolatry is alive and well, although it no longer wears the primitive guise it wore in ancient Egypt and Canaan. We don’t see people bowing before idols of wood, metal, and stone, but they still worship money. Five hundred years ago Rabi Yitzchak Arama, the Akeidas Yitzchak, wrote:

And included in this [the commandment to “have no other gods before Me”] is the great avodah zarah that is very prevalent in the world today, and that is the focusing of all one’s thoughts and activities on the accumulation of wealth and success in business. These are the mighty gods many rely on and place their faith in, and in sanctification of their name they deny G-d above….

Today’s avodah zarah has a new look. The Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, who was on the brink of conversion to Christianity but became a baal teshuvah instead, put it this way:

Although the names have changed, polytheism is alive and well. Culture and civilization, ethnicity and state, nation and race, art and science, livelihood and status could summarize, albeit briefly and incompletely, the pantheon of our times, and who would deny the existence of these gods?...And never has an idolater worshipped his gods with greater sacrifice, with greater belief than modern man worships the aforementioned gods… and thus the war in the human heart between serving the One Gd and serving many gods goes on to this day, and the outcome of this war is never certain. (from Rosenzweig’s book in German on Rabi Yehudah HaLevi)

Indeed, the testimonials, statutes, and laws comprised in the Torah are our defense system, preventing idolatry from taking over our hearts.

And therefore, the father’s answer to the wise son is, “We do not serve a dessert after the Pesach offering.”

Once the Pesach offering has been eaten, we consume no other food, so that the taste of the Korban Pesach — victory over idolatry — should remain on our palate through the night. Internalize this lesson, my son who seeks a deep connection. Taste nothing more, once the concept of Pesach has made our People’s secret clear to you and you know the root of our obligation to keep Torah and mitzvos. That taste of the Korban Pesach must remain with you wherever you go, for therein lies the whole meaning of being a Jew.

 

THE WICKED SON is the antithesis of the wise son. The rituals of the Seder have nothing to say to him and all this collective historical memory is just a burden. He believes in now, in all its forms, and he really sees no point in all these things his father and forefathers want to teach him. What will he get out of it now?

“Can’t you see times have changed?” he insists. “Maybe that was meaningful to people who lived thousands of years ago, but hey, this is the 21st century!”

Indeed, the father’s whole system of thought and action is rooted in the distant past. The intent, however, is to improve the quality of the present and lead to a better future. But the son who lives for the moment is not interested in all that. It only gets in his way. He wants to cast off the shackles of what he sees as a coercive approach. And his question makes it clear where he stands in terms of Jewish identity:

“What is this service to you?”

Unlike the wise son, he’s not interested in the details, the distinctions and nuances. As far as he’s concerned, the Torah is just one big encumbrance, handily summed up in one word: avodah, service. Bothersome demands imposed on him against his will. He believes he’s got better things to do right now.

Perhaps he chooses this word as a rebuttal to his father’s words in the recitation of the Haggadah, “And the Egyptians put Bnei Yisrael to backbreaking work.” The son means to say, “What’s the difference between one form of slavery and the other? It’s still slavery.” The Talmud Yerushalmi suggests this idea in its interpretation of the wicked son’s question: “What is this bother that you put us through every year?”

Clearly, then, the wicked son is setting himself against his father. His question is no question at all, but an answer, a dismissal of Jewish tradition.

The father has a problem now. This son’s mocking attitude is liable to spoil the atmosphere at the Seder table, and what’s worse is that others, if they’re weak in their convictions, might be influenced by his bold self-confidence.

Therefore, the Haggadah advises the father, “Blunt his teeth.”

Of course, the Haggadah isn’t advocating violence. Rather, it’s saying, take the sting out of his words; neutralize the impression he has made. He is trying to devalue the traditions of the Seder, so you must devalue his opinions. Show him up for who he is: a shallow, rootless individual who doesn’t even understand what he is trying to denigrate. His inability to appreciate Yetzias Mitzrayim points to a flaw within him that prevents him from savoring the taste of redemption:

“Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.”

He thinks he doesn’t needs all this baggage from the past in order to be a Jew. He needs to be told that not only are he and his children at high risk of perishing in the sea of assimilation, but that even then, when Israel was redeemed from Egypt, he would have been left behind to assimilate.

This sharp rejoinder is an attempt to save him. Knocked down from his high horse, perhaps he will understand that with his attitude, he is removing himself from Am Yisrael, and that in terms of both Jewish destiny and his own life, he is headed nowhere. Perhaps then he will change his ways.

 

THE SIMPLE SON is not lacking in intelligence, either. He only lacks a sense of connection. He’s full of curiosity, but his curiosity is like that of a tourist. By contrast, the wicked son’s defiance at least indicates an inner struggle. He wants to throw off the yoke, but his animosity shows some vestige of caring, while the simple son is just an onlooker. Whatever he learns at the Seder table about the Exodus is stored away with the facts he knows about penguins in Antarctica or the bushmen of Africa, and then he’s ready to move on, untouched emotionally and with no thought that this could be a life-changing experience.

And the answer to this son’s touristy questions is, “With strength of Hand, Hashem took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

This son needs to be shaken out of his anthropological detachment, his intellectual posturing. The father’s answer to him is meant to arouse a sense of wonder, to call his attention to the miracles that happened in Egypt, the revelation of G-d’s Hand. If we can get this message through to him, the Seder won’t be a mere visit to ancient Middle Eastern culture, but a personal experience.

 

THE SON WHO DOESN’T KNOW to ask is the type that is simply uninterested. He doesn’t even feel any intellectual curiosity to know what the Seder is all about. Studying in a European university, becoming a financial wizard, or trekking through Nepal may tug at his heart, but the mesorah of his ancestors has no appeal for him, and it’s never occurred to him to take an interest in the seminal events of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

But the Haggadah won’t give up on this son, either. It tries to address him with this message: “At petach lo.” You start the conversation. Try to engage him, try to penetrate that wall of indifference. Perhaps you will find some soft spot where you can dribble something in. The father is actually instructed to answer this son with the same pasuk that is thrown at the wicked son: “For this, Hashem acted for me when I left Egypt” — but without the implied stinging rebuke. Rather, it's like a road sign popping up before the son who doesn’t know to ask, alerting him that here is something he can’t afford to miss. If he does miss it, he is liable to become as alienated and antagonistic as the wicked son, and to follow him into oblivion. But despite his apparent apathy, he still wants to retain a certain connection with the Jewish People.

The pasuk’s message to this son is that no matter how liberally you want to interpret the word “Jewish,” the concept is inextricably connected with Yetzias Mitzrayim. “For this, Hashem acted for me.” Everything I represent, by my very existence, stems from the fact that Hashem took us out of Egypt! Without this event, there would be no such thing as being Jewish — not even “culturally Jewish,” “part Jewish,” or “of Jewish ancestry.”

And therefore, the Haggadah says to the son who doesn’t even care to ask, “Unless you want to be cut off completely from your people, you must take off your blinders and investigate this thing called Yetzias Mitzrayim, this thing that defines us, with a broad perspective and without prejudice.”

May we all succeed in accessing the heart of each “son,” biological or not, at our Seder table this year, and getting the message of the Haggadah across to him. For even the most distant, the most alienated, is still a son of our People.

And to all of Beis Yisrael everywhere, chag kasher v’sameiach

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