The Torah tells us of four sons…

One of the central passages of the seder involves a presentation of the questions of, and the responses to four paradigmatic sons. We are told of a wise son, a wicked son, an innocent or naive son, and one who does not know how to initiate a question. Each of these “sons”  is uncertain, in one way or another, about the meaning of the ritual observances surrounding Passover, and for each one an appropriate answer is given, depending on the personality of the son.

This haggada aggada is problematic on several fronts, and one supposes that that is the reason for its inclusion; the haggada being zen-koan-like in its textual strangeness and paradoxicality,  a textual device clearly meant to provoke response (and thus perhaps the secret of its enduring popularity). Here, however, a set of responses are already given; what they actually mean remains puzzling.

From whence are these archetypical sons derived? Each of these ‘sons’ comes out of a biblical prooftext in which there is a reference to instructing one’s offspring. However, they are not presented, powerpoint style, in order of their appearance in the Torah, rather they grouped according to subject matter, implying that it is the meaning, rather than the textual derivation, which has priority in this usage.

There are other oddities; the question of the wise son and the wicked son are similar, and the answer to the wicked son and the non-questioning son are derived from the same verse, and these matters are dealt with in the classical commentators; perhaps we’ll elaborate more on them in the future.

I would like to share several interesting readings, followed by a novel reading of my own which synthesizes these in a contemporary context. An interesting reading comes from the Haggada of R. Yitzhak Isaac Haver, a second generation student of the Vilna Gaon, and a major conduit for the Gaon’s teachings regarding aggada and mysticism. This Haggada had been unavailable for a very long time, and was recently republished; as it is published it is somewhat controversial, as the family descendants decided to censor out all the mystical references and present only the non-kabbalistic readings.Even in “expurgated” form it is a text of great interest, in that the Haggada is read by him as a unified text, with a purpose behind its structure. He argues that the encounter with the Haggada is meant to teach two things:

1. the recognition of a new form of divine providence- prior to the exodus nature was in charge, after the exodus, a direct personal relationship with Gd became the norm;

2. that Gd operates justly, so that theodicy operates via a direct relationship between the sin and the punishment. Accordingly, all of this is read into the four sons episode as well.

Thus, the wise son asks, ‘what are these laws that Gd commanded you?’, using a three fold synonym for laws- edut, hukim, and mishpatim.

These terms, found throughout the Torah, have been read as referring to differing classes of laws back in the early days of medieval hermeneutics- Saadia Gaon read them as: edut- laws of testimony, such as Shabbat, mishpatim- rational laws, whose goal in enactment could be comprehended, and hukim, which are laws whose purpose is not within the normal human cognitive faculties of understanding, such as the red heifer ceremony.

According to R. Yitzhak Isaac Haver, the wise son notes that these three categories of Jewish legislation (edut, chukim, mishpatim) are contained within this first commandment to the Israelite nation,  the Passover sacrifice.  Edut, testimony- the Pesach ritual is supposed to witness the redemption by Gd of the people from bondage. Regarding Hukim, commonly understood as ‘irrational’ or ‘a-rational’ commandments, he explains that the true purpose of these commandments are to serve as fine-tuning actions for the soul, that is, performing them and experiencing them lead to greater spiritual capacity, and thus we can’t understand them prior to undergoing them, but Gd, who created us, knows what the repair procedure is for us, and we can only understand them after their performance, what in Buddhist thought may be called “vehicles”. These are present in the Pesach sacrifice, in commands such as ‘no bone shall ye break of it’.

The third type of laws, mishpatim, he reads as referring to civil law, the basis for a fair and orderly society. To R. Yitzhak Haver, the central message of the Passover ritual is, surprisingly, civil interaction, the Passover sacrifice thus being the major symbol of commitment to social justice, rather than the spiritual, or mystical concepts. For one would think, the Pesach sacrifice, first major commandment to the people, ; how should it be observed? As a big ‘happening’, everyone together, trippin’ out with the multitudes, a communal moment, right?

But in fact, the Torah is very specific that the Paschal sacrifice is to be eaten in small groups, in the home, along pre-allotted assignment to individual partakers!

The reason for this, as RYH continues, is to insist that Jewish law first and foremost recognizes and respects personal and individual space. No individual person gets passed over, as it were, when it comes to the law, there is a border erected at the interface between the individual and the community, and that defines the personal space of the individual. The individual is not melded into the greater mass, is not in danger of being negated in the quest for mass spiritual attainment, and will not be ”sacrificed” for the majority community’s religious desire. The realm of the Other is inviolate, right from the start of Jewish lawmaking (my own thinking on this commandment to bring the Pesach as small family units is that it might have been the former slaves first taste of life as free people- slaves are always considered as a mass, not as individuals; their family lives are meaningless to their masters, their children thought of only as chattel. So being considered as individuals with households may have been the most unbelievable experience to the people).

Following this logic,  he explains the answer given to the wise son, which seems like a technical point, to present to the child the injunction not to eat after tasting of the afikoman.  (Background: There are two sacrifices brought on Pesach, first a hagiga, and then the specific Passover sacrifice, symbolized by the “afikoman”, the last bit of food eaten on Passover night).

There is a message behind this- the hagiga sacrifice, he explains, is meant to be symbolic of this world, the transient world in which justice is not always guaranteed, while the afikoman symbolizes the Pesach sacrifice, which is symbolic of the world-to-come, a world of everlasting justice, and hence, the ‘taste’ of the possibility of a world in which justice is the rule is what must remain from this celebration of freedom.

(For the sake of completion, I’ll summarize his explanation of the answers given to the other sons. The response to the wicked son comes out of verses which deal with the slaying of the first born. This is meant to imply that the wicked  son is denying reward and punishment, as this plague, the slaying of the first born, was meant to be a retribution for the suffering caused the Israelite slaves, and a denying of its purpose is a denial of the idea that Gd is cognizant of human suffering and interested in its rectification. The naive son he reads as wanting to observe Gd’s commandments without question, and therefore does not ask about any details, rather he is just confused about his place in the scheme of things, since all firstborns were supposed to be the priests, but were swapped for the Levites (this intrusion of the firstborn/Levites matter stems from the source of the verse cited, which deals with this issue). Finally, the non-questioning son is given an explanation even though he didn’t ask for one, specifically at the seder, because this mitzvah of Pesach is so central to consciousness that it requires comprehension and meaningfulness;  slavish adherence to ritual is inadequate.)

In summary, according to R. Yizhak Isaac Haver, there are four archetypical sons specifically defined, with each being provided with an appropriately archetypical answer.

The Sefat Emet, however, has an entirely novel approach to the episode of the four sons. The four sons are not four sons biologically distinct individuals, rather, they reflect different states of religious development within every one of us.

Every person, at different times in their lives, has different challenges and conflicts, and requires alternative solutions, depending upon which son they are, as it were,  at the time. Hence, it is worthwhile to contemplate and resolve these matters in our hearts, not with a single answer, but from a variety of perspectives. Support for this approach is found in the Maharal of Prague, who in his commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 2, reads ‘know how to respond to the non-believer’ as referring to the non-believer, ‘the apikoras within’.

When we are the ”wise son”, we wants meanings, but we are answered with the experience of the lingering taste of the afikoman, which, zen-like, is essentially no taste at all; the meaning is found in the service,  within the experience of following Gd’s command.

The wicked son is an Aristotelean; Gd is removed from the world and from anything we may do. ‘What is this service in your hands? Who are you to think that Gd cares what you do?’ The answer given is, ‘because of this’- exactly because we are human and fallible, are our actions  meaningful to Gd. Akin to the oft-quoted line of the Kotzker- ‘people of holiness be unto me’, which the Kotzker read as “angels, Gd has plenty of”. What Gd requires is the devotion of real fallible people, people who are capable of learning and of growth. Similarly, the Slonimer, in his Netivot Shalom posits an existential crisis for the the sinful son, who feels that he has fallen so deep, so far from redemption that in his despair he agrees that the commandments have a purpose, but for everyone else, but not for him, lost soul that he feels himself to be. Thus, the Hagadda teaches us to wake this son up, shock him out of his despair, remind him that every soul can reach out to Gd, even one stained by sin. The Shem M’Shemuel has a surprise reading of the final line of the response to the wicked son. The text tells us to answer the wicked son that were he around during the exodus from Egypt, by excluding himself he would not have been redeemed. That was a correct answer there (sham), states the Shem M’Shemuel, back in  Egypt. However, now, after the giving of the Torah, no one is left behind, no matter how remotely they may have drifted from spiritual truth.

The naive son, according to the Sefat Emet, is spiritually naive, and thus, when he has a moment of enlightenment, he gets all swelled up, asks, ‘what is this’, and becomes proud. The answer then is that one should recognize that we are given this capacity for spiritual greatness as a gift from Gd, not based exclusively on our merit, rather as a result of the ‘broad arm of Gd’.

The Sefat Emet’s approach to the final son, the non-questioning one, is of special poignancy today. The SE explains that as a result of the travails of life in exile, as a result of the extreme suffering our people must endure, this fourth son represents those of us who are stunned, who are in shock,who have lost the ability to derive sense of our existence. The Sefat Emet doesn’t present an answer for this, only quotes the haggada’s ‘you shall open it up for him’, perhaps more as a prayer than anything else.

I would like to suggest another possible reading, following in part the Sefat Emet’s lead. Today, when there is an unending media assault upon us and particularly our children, inundating us with their own perception (usually market generated), telling us what to believe, what our values (in many senses of the word) must be, urging children to identify with brand names more than with parental teachings, to learn from celebrities more than from family, thus thrusting them deep into the world of commodities and the ‘hyper-real’, that world created out of media pronouncements and marketing which attempts to have us replace our “real” needs and reality with a desiring fascination towards a world of commodities, sensed a s being ’more real’ and more valid than our own lives. Perhaps in our age of media saturation, every child is all four children. Perhaps we are all now, as the Tiferet Shelomo suggests, the Child who knows-not-how-to-even- ask, meaning we are so lost to our own truth that we don’t even know how to be concerned for own own welfare. Every child today, at every point in time, in every the situation he or she may find him or herself, requires answers, guidance to or , sometimes away from fulfilment of our needs and desires. As William Bennett (himself an individual who could have benefitted from some serious guidance) states in ‘The Educated Child’:

Children need unconditional devotion (not unconditional approval)…

In this era of unprecedented media focus groups and targeting, and the continual bombardment of our senses and consciousness with advertising images, we need to ask of ourselves to face  core questions about our essential human spirit,  to maintain core human truths to ourselves even when they are in conflict with the views of the marketing and media onslaught, and perhaps, as a result of the challenges posed to us by the Hagadda and in the confronting of these issues yearly at the Seder, we will also be ready to pass answers on to our children.


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