(Source: Arthur Szyk, "The Four Sons")
Let’s turn back to the mysterious, riveting story of the Four Children, which we read every year at the Seder. The four children, or four kinds of children, approach Passover in four different ways, and we are told to respond to them differently, each in their own way: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask a question.
Whereas the most common interpretation may be that the wise child is the favorite, the Rabbinic authors buried a few treasures within this text that call that view into question. The Rabbis cared about people’s feelings and would not typically advocate, for example, cutting someone off from the people without at least processing the likely outcome of that. I don’t think any of the children is a favorite; I think they all have their strengths and flaws. Some of them are surprising.
We all know kids like these: the wise one with all the answers, the wicked one who disrupts everything, the simple one who isn’t sure what’s going on, and the one who is either too little or too simple indeed to form a question. The first point is that these are children — our children. Even when they act out, the Rabbis could not possibly have meant that we are to cut one of them off while smothering another with praise. All four of them are our future. If we want 100% of a future, instead of 75% or less, then we’d better figure out how to reach each one of them, so that when they grow into adults each of them too will be able to say, “This is what the Eternal God did for me, when I went forth from Egypt.”
The Wise Child
The Wise Child asks: “What are all the rituals, laws and customs which the Eternal One, our God, has commanded you?” You shall respond to him with the rules of Passover, down to the last detail, which is: There is no further eating after the Afikoman.
I always used to assume that the Wise Child was the favorite, the exemplar of how everybody else should ask. That does seem to be the p’shat, the literal meaning of the text. The child is called wise, which is a compliment, and shows interest in a correct observance.
The Wise Child’s question is a quotation from Torah (Deut. 6:20). Oddly, the recommended response to the Wise Child does not match the commandment given in Deut. 6:21-25 as to what to say. Are we to assume that the Wise Child already knows that “God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand”? Are the Torah’s words too elementary for the Wise Child? Or does the mismatch signal that something deeper is going on?
I am not convinced that the Wise Child is the rabbis’ favorite. (I’ve already tipped my hand; I don’t believe any of the children are favored or disfavored.) The Wise Child is praised for being interested in the laws. But the point of the Seder, as we are told repeatedly, is not what we do or don’t eat after the Afikoman, but that God redeemed us from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. In this way, the Wise Child has somewhat missed the point. The rabbinic authors answer in kind, giving an overly specific answer to the Wise Child’s overly specific question.