Four Sons - Four Stages

By Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up. – Mark Twain

In years past, I have railed against the four questions of the Passover Haggadah. For example, there aren’t four questions, rather just one question: Mah nishtana halayla hazeh – Why is this night different from all other nights? Why those questions when there are so many better questions. I mean, do we really care about dipping? My past obsession over the four questions must now take us to another important point of the Seder experience. A companion section, if you will – The Four Sons. It’s easy to link the two: they both share the number four; tradition assigns the reading of the four questions to the youngest child which parallels this section speaking about children. Similar to my inquiry about the real number of questions in the four questions, we shouldn’t assume that just because there are four children that we are going to be fielding four questions. We know that isn’t the case. In truth, the only four in any of this is the four answers that our sages provide to the four different postures that the children display – Wisdom, Wickedness, Simplicity and Silence. This section of the Haggadah is filled with provocations begging us to delve deeper into what it all means.

The Wise Child: The question that the wise child asks comes directly from the Torah: If your child asks you tomorrow, saying: What are the testimonies, and the decrees and the ordinances that God, our God, commanded you? (Deuteronomy 6:20) In responding to this child, our Haggadah deviates from the answer that our Torah commands us to respond, an answer, by the way, which would have been perfect for our Passover experience (see Deuteronomy 6:21- 25). Instead, our Haggadah instructs us to talk about laws and rituals for the Passover Seder experience.

The Wicked Child: This child also asks a question that is proscribed by the Torah: And it shall be when your children say to you, “What is this service to you? (Exodus 12:26). Once again, the answer that the Torah provides would have been a great answer (see Exodus 12:27). However, our sages from the Haggadah ignore that and decide to berate this child because of perceived obstinacy and arrogance. Unlike the wise child who receives an answer which is taken from the rabbinic wisdom, the wicked child receives an answer from the Torah but from a chapter later: It was because of this that God acted on my behalf when I left Egypt (Exodus 13:8). Interestingly, the arrogance that the wicked child is chastised, using a directional pronoun excluded himself from the miracle of the Exodus (‘To you’ and not ‘to him’), is not that different from the wise child’s question, as the wise child’s question is also phrased with a directional pronoun – ‘commanded you,’ rather than include himself. To drive the point home further, the answer from Exodus 13 is truly the exclusionary element and not the questions (on ‘my’ behalf when ‘I’ left Egypt.).

The Simple Child: This is the only question and answer taken directly from the Torah complete. No edits or commentary. (Exodus 13:14).

The one who doesn’t know how to ask: Since there isn’t a question here, the Torah doesn’t provide the question text akin to the previous three. But the answer is from the Torah: It was because of this that God acted on my behalf when I left Egypt.(Exodus 13:8) Another interesting twist, as the answer for this child is the same as for the wicked child, minus the harsh commentary.

So what’s happening here and how does this speak to our life and challenges today. What guidance do these three questions and four answers give us to navigate the modern plague we are all traversing? For me, these questions and answers aren’t stemming from four different individuals, but instead, these are stages of questions and answers which we are all cycling through at this time.

With this COVID-19 pandemic, as with any challenging situation, we started with facts, data and analysis. We watch the reports and listen to the ‘experts’ as we attempt to understand what is actually approaching. We seek wisdom!

Unfortunately, this quickly gives way to cynicism, arrogance, fear and blame. We started hording toilet paper for some unknown reason and pointing fingers at people still working, making assumption and wielding accusation. We think and act wickedly!

Then we were left in our solitude and quiet, we start asking the simple, basic questions. Why is this happening? When is it going to end? How are we going to survive? We are now down to the most basic level. The questions are simple in structure but whose answers are infinitely more difficult to answer.

And this leaves us with the final stage of our questions – We don’t have any more questions. The answers we have received from the past three stages have worn us down and been unfulfilling. And now we are left with no more questions. However, there is an answer! Each and every one of us is hearing the answer loudly but we stopped listening because we gave up questioning. The Haggadah teaches us that when there aren’t any more questions, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still be listening for an answer. In our Haggadah, the answer is… that God did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. This is our answer today! More than ever, we need to walk in God’s ways and do what we can for others who can’t do for themselves. How so? We are all struggling with isolation. Have we called somebody today? The smartest thing about our smart phone is that they have thousands of phones numbers saved inside of them. Pick any letter in your contacts list, start there and make a phone call or send a text. Say anything! The simple fact that you reached out is what ends the isolation.

We are hearing a lot about safety equipment, or lack thereof. There are articles throughout the internet about how to make face masks from household fabrics. In fact, there are a number of articles about how to make face masks out of kippot. And before you ask, let me give you the answer – YES!!!! You can use the 300 kippot in your kitchen drawer, the ones lifted from all the weddings and B’nai Mitzvah attended over the years, to help save lives. Find the article on the internet, make the masks and give them out to those who need them. Especially the neon colored ones.

“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.” (Mark Twain.) The way we are going to find ourselves out of this dark situation is to stop waiting for a question to come up and start listening to the answers. We are all made in Betzelem Elohim, in God’s image. Do for somebody else, what they can’t do for themselves. Redemption is at hand… if we could find the courage to lend a hand to somebody in need.