Torah Commentary: The Seder and Transformative Consciousness

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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 the fourth described as one who does not know how to initiate a question. Each of these “sons”questions, in one way or another, is 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. Each of these ‘sons’ questions and answers are constructed out of biblical proof texts which contain a reference to instructing one’s offspring. However, they are not presented, Powerpoint style, in order of their appearance in the Torah, and are used in a homiletic manner to teach certain points. What these points might be is also left unexplained in an almost zen koan like challenge to comprehension; we will see that loaded within this seemingly innocuous passage is a call to transformative consciousness.
The entire passage is unclear, for example, the question of the wise son and the wicked son are similar, while the answers they receive are curious; furthermore, the answer given to the wicked son and the non-questioning son are derived from the exact same verse. What do all these texts with their attributions to different types of children come to teach us on the first night of Passover, what does any of this have to do with liberation from oppression?
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, in his commentary on the Hagada, analyzes this segment as a social critique. His commentary 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 he reads the entire Hagada as a unified text, with the full experience of the Hagada meant to teach two lessons:

1. Recognition of a new form of divine providence- prior to the exodus nature was untamed and wild, after the exodus, a direct personal relationship with God became the norm, beyond nature;

2. God operates justly, so that theodicy operates via a direct relationship between the sin and the punishment.

These lessons are embedded in our passage of the four sons. The wise son asks, ‘what are these laws that God commanded you?’ using the technical terminology for the three forms of Biblical law- 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 all contained within this first commandment to the Israelite nation,the Passover sacrifice. Edut, testimony- the Pesach ritual is supposed to witness the redemption by God 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 God, who created us, knows what the repair procedure is for us. These acts can only be understood in retrospect, after the experience, similar to the Buddhist “vehicles”. These types of ritual are present in the Pesach sacrifice, in commands such as ‘no bone shall ye break of it’.
The third type of laws, mishpatim, he defines as civil law, the basis for a fair and orderly society. To R. Yitzhak Haver, the central message of the Passover ritual is, in fact, a lesson of civic interaction, the Passover sacrifice representing a commitment to social justice, primary to the spiritual, or mystical concepts. For one would think, the Pesach sacrifice, first major commandment to the new nation, shouldn’t it be celebrated as a big public ‘happening’, everyone together, as 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 by family!
The reason for this, as RYH continues, is that Jewish law first and foremost recognizes personal and individual space. No individual person gets passed over, as it were, there is no “state of exception”. 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 negated in the quest for mass spiritual attainment, and is not “sacrificed” for the greater community’s religious benefit. The realm of the Other is inviolate, right at the outset of Jewish lawmaking (I would add that this ruling regarding small groups may be an act of rebellion for the former slaves against their former status- slaves are always considered as a mass, not as individuals; their family lives are meaningless to their masters, their wives and children are thought of only as chattel to be separated and sold at the whim of the master. Being considered as individuals with self-determined households was an essential step in experiencing freedom).
The answer given to the wise son, which on first reading appears to be a very technical sort of answer, is to teach the child the injunction against tasting any food after eating the afikoman. (There are two sacrifices brought on Pesach, the first called the ‘hagiga’ which is brought on all holidays, and then the specific Passover sacrifice, symbolized by the “afikoman”, the taste of which is meant to linger throughout the night of Passover).
The hagiga sacrifice in this answer to the wise son, according to RYH, is meant to be symbolic of this world, our transient world in which justice is not always guaranteed, while the afikoman symbolizes the Passover sacrifice, which is symbolic of the world-to-come, a world of everlasting justice, and hence, the ‘taste’ of of a world in which justice can be achieved should linger in the minds of all those experiencing this moment of liberation through the Hagada.
(For the sake of completion, a summary of the answers given to the other sons according to R. Yitzhak Haver. The response to the ‘wicked’ son is based upon verses which deal with the slaying of the first born. The implication is that the wicked son is denying reward and punishment, as the slaying of the first born was meant to be a retribution for the suffering caused by the Egyptians to the Israelite slaves, and a denying of its purpose is a denial of the idea that God feels the pain of human suffering and ultimately responds. The ‘naïve’ son he reads as wanting to observe God’s commandments without question, and therefore does not ask about any details, but is 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 that issue). Finally, the ‘non-questioning’ son is told the meaning of the ritual even though he was willing to follow blindly, because the Passover experience is so central to consciousness of freedom that it must be understood and made meaningful; the seder is not a time for slavish adherence to ritual.)
The Sefat Emet moves from the social to the psychological in his reading of this passage. The four sons are not four distinct individuals, rather, each one of us is all four of the sons, at different moments of our personal spiritual development.
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. Thus, we must always be prepared to answer our own questions from whatever psychological state we might be in at a given time. Support for this approach is found in the Maharal of Prague, who in his commentary to Ethics of the Fathers, chapter 2, reads the teaching ‘know how to respond to the non-believer’ as referring to the non-believer, ‘the apikoras within’.
The Sefat Emet suggests that when we are in the exuberant state of the”wise son”, what we are searching for are ‘meanings’, however, the answer we require in that state is experiential, the experience of the lingering taste of the afikoman, which, zen-like, is essentially no taste at all (matzo being tasteless); the meaning is found in the act of eating itself,within the experience of following God’s command.
The wicked son is an Aristotelean; God is removed from our world and is not interested in our daily affairs. ‘What is this service in your hands?, we ask in this emotional state, who are you to think that a divinity responsible for the vast cosmos cares what you do?’ The answer given is, ‘because of this’-exactly because we are human and fallible, our actions meaningful to God. Akin to the oft-quoted interpretation by the Kotzker of the verse- ‘people of holiness be unto me’, which he reads as “specifically people striving for holiness is what God seeks, angels, God has plenty of”. Our spirituality is the devotion of real, fallible people, people who are capable of mistakes, learning and subsequent growth.
Other Hasidic thinkers follow in this vein. The Netivot Shalom posits an existential crisis for the sinful son, who fears that he has fallen so deep, so far from redemption, that in his despair he understands that the commandments have a purpose 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 God, even one stained by sin. The Shem M’Shemuel has an uplifting positive reading of the response to the wicked son.The Hagada responds to the wicked son that were he around during the exodus from Egypt, by excluding himself from the community, he would not have been redeemed. The Shem M’Shmuel suggests that being left behind was a reality there (sham) back in Egypt, however, now, after the giving of the Torah, no one is left behind, no matter how remotely they feel 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 arrogant as a result of his spiritual growth. The response to ourselves in that state is to recognize that we are given this capacity for spiritual attainment, we did not create it on our own, it was created within each one of us as a result of the ‘broad arm of God’ as is stated in the text.
The Sefat Emet’s approach to the final son, the non-questioning one, is particularly poignant. The SE explains that as a result of the travails of life in exile, as a result of the extreme suffering our people have endured, this fourth son represents the state of mind of those of us who are stunned, who are in shock, who have lost the ability to make sense of our daily existence. The Sefat Emet doesn’t present an answer for this, only quotes the hagada’s response of ‘you shall try to start explaining it to him’, perhaps more as a prayer than anything else.
If the social and the spiritual classically appear as polar antinomies, there is a reading, from the Kedushat Levi, that may serve as a resolution. It has long been standard in philosophic discussion to consider the spiritual and the social, the abstraction of reason and the empiricism of physical life, as polar opposites that are exist in dialectical confrontation with one another, particularly after Kant where the subjective is incapable of truly knowing the “objective reality” said to exist out there, somewhere. However, in contemporary thought, particularly through the writings of the thinkers associated with the “Frankfurt School”, reject this dichotomy. In short, there is no reality out there and there is no subject trying to apprehend it behind some Kantian veil. Rather, subjectivity and reality are both formed by and as a result of social and historical realities, which construct one another. As summarized by Herbert Marcuse,

The philosophical construction of reason is replaced by the creation of a rational society. The philosophical ideals of a better world and of true Being are incorporated into the practical aims of struggling mankind, where they take on human form…

Reality and subjective understanding of that reality construct one another. If we may use our seder as an example, it is clear that the empirical “realities” of an enslaved people are very different from that of a liberated nation, and certainly our modes of perception are transformed by our historical moment. In our contemporary times, our progress in science has greatly altered our capacity to understand the world around us, and at the same time, because of our progress in understanding, our social realities have been greatly transformed (it is not by accident that political attempts to turn back the continued liberation of those oppressed by society is carried out by the same people who would deny science). It is clear, then, that both the social and the spiritual are constitutive of one another; who we are is determined by the social arrangements we maintain. This self-constitution is labelled “praxis” by the Frankfurt thinkers, the route by which limitations even of philosophical understanding can be overcome through social change.
The Kedushat Levi sets up a dialectical relationship between chametz (leavened bread) and matza (unleavened bread), in which chametz, which shares a root with the verb l’hachmitz, to delay or to miss something, comes to mean a jaded reality, whereas matza, linked to the exodus, represents the new, the revolutionary, the liberating. Thus, the wise son asks, why is not adequate to simply “know” that there was an exodus, why do we need all these rules and ritual? He answers that in fact, simply witnessing the external events is a low form of understanding and over time, will degenerate in the world of “chametz”. A true understanding requires an abstract level of understanding that can only come as a result of engagement with the world, it is not enough to know there is a better world of freedom, that world of freedom needs to be established through action in the real world, not just in the abstract. Abstract understanding cannot be maintained without real world activity, and at the same time performing the commandments is itself constitutive/reconstitutive of the deeper spiritual understanding (in another teaching, the Kedushat Levi explains the Talmudic teaching of “the reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah” as meaning that the reward for doing the right thing is the understanding of that right thing in depth). This is why the response to the now wise son, who has attained the liberating, revolutionary concepts behind the exodus, involves the “afikoman” which is Aramaic can be broken down to two words, afiku m”n, meaning “draw out the mayim nukvin, the feminine waters” which in kabbalistic language is shorthand for an act which changes the spiritual state of the world, a sublation, to use Hegelian language, a transformation of both the social and spiritual worlds. In other words, the wise son is told, if you have attained a liberated consciousness, you need to transform society as well, which, as we’ve seen, will also create a grounds for further spiritual attainment and so forth.
The Bet Yaakov employs a similar strategy in explaining the answer of the fourth son, the one who doesn’t know where to begin. He wishes to achieve a higher consciousness, but doesn’t know how. The answer he receives, paradoxically, is exactly the same the wicked son receives, “because of this that God did for me upon leaving Egypt”. As a response to the wicked mocking son, it is exclusionary, that this was done for me but not you, however in this context, the emphasis is upon the actions done by the people as preparation for the Exodus (the paschal sacrifice, the smearing of the doorposts, circumcision, etc). The message is, that through positive action, through praxis, one can attain revolutionary consciousness, one which will allow the liberation from oppression and a transformation of society.
I wish for all of us, that as a result of our sedarim, we all collectively re-attain this revolutionary consciousness, and strive to create a better world, one free of oppression, for all of humanity.