For the week ending 16 April 2016 / 8 Nisan 5776

All Four One and One Four All

by Rabbi Richard Jacobs
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Given that the primary purpose of the Seder night and the Haggadah is to instill fundamentals of Jewish faith in the next generation, it's of little surprise that we find educational principles embedded in the text of the Haggadah.

The paragraph of the “four sons” guides us with how to relate to different types of children, which path in chinuch to follow, and what to teach.

For the chacham, the wise son, with particular talents in learning, a quick and good understanding, and who asks of the “testimonies, statutes and laws” — let him apply his talents to Torah learning and not be distracted by other wisdoms. What becomes of those who are successful in these other disciplines? The modern world is full of new and wondrous discoveries, but the way of the world is that while the new flourish, the old flounder — the new overwrites the old. Not so when it comes to Torah, where the Sages of times gone by are well remembered and live on, as their words in the Talmud and commentaries are debated and analyzed in yeshivot.

To the rasha, the wicked son, disconnected from tradition, not following halacha, and all too often in our days associating with friends who are a negative influence — don't address his challenges head on, but also don't despair and cut him off. Recognize that there is an issue, yet realize that he is there at the Seder and may absorb from the words of Torah around him.

The tam is usually translated as the simple son, but this doesn't do him justice. The tam is someone who doesn't have natural talents in learning. We know that the secret to success in Torah is hard work, toil and perseverance. We see that there are gedolei Torah who showed limited promise as a child, and yet, despite this, or perhaps, even because of it, with resolute determination develop to become a flowing river of Torah. King David tells us, "The testimony of G-d is trustworthy, making the simple one wise." (Tehillim 19:8)

And finally, the child who does not know to ask, who is usually inaccurately portrayed as a young child, not yet old enough to be able to pose a question. In reality he is the partner of the rasha who doesn't ask. Not because he is not able to ask, but because he is not interested. In many ways he is more challenging to deal with — the rasha kicks and screams against the Torah, indicating the pain of his neshama, while the child who doesn't ask shows no outward indication that there is a problem to deal with. Here too don't despair. The Haggadah quotes the same verse in answering both of these children, but in the case of the child who doesn't ask makes one small addition — "at patach lo" — you (singular, feminine) open him up, initiate with him. You (singular, feminine), like the mercy of a mother opening up the mouth of a reluctant baby so that she can feed him and he will grow strong.

Four sons — four different educational principles. However, there is a curiosity in the translation. "The Torah speaks of four sons: one (echad) wise, one (echad) wicked, one (echad) simple and one (echad) who doesn't know how to ask." The word "echad" when used in sequence like this often means "whether" — whether this, whether that…

Perhaps there are not four sons, but one, with different character traits being dominant at any given time; and rather than deriving principles for ways of relating to our children, and strengthening their emunah, we should be asking ourselves:

  • Do we apply ourselves as fully to Torah learning as we should?
  • Do we associate with the right people who will be a positive influence on us?
  • When there is an area of learning that doesn't lend itself to our natural strengths, do we devote enough energy and effort to understanding it?
  • And when there is an area of Torah that we are not interested in, do we actively look for the opening that will lead us to engagement?

  • Sources: based on Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus and an idea heard from Rabbi Kalman Rosenbaum

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