Four Sons, Four Questions
What is really going on with the Four Sons, how do they relate to the Four Questions -- and what does it mean for us today?
The Four Sons correspond to the Four Questions.
We'll start with the Wise Son. He asks, "What are these statutes?" In the Torah, statutes (chukim) are laws which don't have any apparent rational reason. For example, why don't Jews eat pork? Many people think it's because of health reasons, so you shouldn't get trichinosis. But the Torah itself says it's really because of a spiritual reason. Why?
The pig is the only animal in the world possessing the outward symbol of kosher (split hooves), but not the inward symbol (chewing cud). The pig therefore represents that which is kosher in outward appearance, but is in fact unclean on the inside. This type of hypocrisy is described in the Talmud as one of the categories of behavior that God detests. For that moral reason, the pig is universally viewed as reprehensible to the Jew.
Kabbalah teaches that eating this animals empowers the body and makes it harder to be a spiritual person.
And so you should instruct him in the laws of Passover, that one may not eat anything after the Passover offering.
These days, with the Temple in ruins, we don't have the Passover offering. So instead, we eat the Afikomen, a piece of matzah at the end of the meal. This corresponds to the first of the Four Questions: On all other nights we eat chametz, on this night matzah. Because this night we have to get back to the essentials, the understanding of what life is about. That's the essence of wisdom. You pull back from your ego and you see what really counts. That's the Wise Son. He wants to grasp, and he uses the laws of Passover to do it.
What does the Evil Son say?
He gives us a hard time. "What's all this Passover stuff to you?" he says. I don't need this." He excludes himself from the Jewish people. He's mocking, making fun of it all. "It's all a joke and I don't care about being a Jew." He's not even asking a question; he's hoping you won't have an answer.
Why isn't the Evil Son placed last? Isn't he the worst? Why did the Sages list him after the Wise Son? Because even though the Evil Son is fighting -- at least he's engaged in the discussion and you've got somebody to talk to. He's alert and thinking. If you can turn him around, you've got another Wise Son!
You may ask why the Evil Son is listed here at all. Because he's still part of the Jewish people. We have to make an effort to reach him.
This parallels the second of the Four Questions: "On this night we eat bitter herbs." The Evil Son represents bitterness. Because he has spent a lifetime trading in "meaning" for bodily desires. On the surface, he says "Who needs God? I want the fancy house and the expensive car." And in fact, we may look at him and think he's really having a good time. But you'd have to live with him to see how bitter his life really is. Do you think his wife and children respect him?
To be chasing your desires is a bitter trap. So on Passover, we eat the Marror and say "Yuch!" Because that's how it tastes to be running after your desires. Miserable and bitter.
SHAKEN BY THE EVENT
The third son is the Simple Son. He says, "What is this?" So you say to him, "God brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand."
Who is this simple son? I've seen pictures in Haggadahs where they show this poor kid with soup dripping from his chin because they think that tam in Hebrew means that he's stupid and can't think straight. But really tam means simple, calm, plain. He's not an intellectual, and he may not know much about Judaism -- but he wants to do the right thing. He gives charity, he has a good heart -- but he doesn't know reasons for things. Because he's not studying, he relates to the experiential, pain aspect of Judaism.
The third son corresponds to the third question: On this night we dip twice. The Simple Son needs to see a change in order to be stimulated and arouse his curiosity -- to get him moving. He's the type of person who goes to a funeral, and (if even for a brief moment) asks himself the question, "What is life all about?" He takes a trip to Israel and gets a lift.
Unfortunately it's often anti-Semitism that focuses the third son. We dip into salt water which represents the tears of the Jews. The biggest thing holding Jews together in today is the fear of Israel falling and the memory of the Holocaust.
At the Seder, the third son comments on the strange custom, "Why are we dipping?" It's the changes that get him thinking.
APATHETIC AND EVIL?
The fourth son is the one who doesn't know how to ask. So what do we tell him? "Because of this that God did for me..."
The fourth son is apathetic. He's not thinking and he doesn't much care. So we tell him the same answer we gave to the Evil Son -- because apathy can be very easily turned into hate and rejection. That's why Judaism says apathy is an aspect of evil. And that's why this son is listed last. If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
The fourth son corresponds to the fourth question: "On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining." At the Seder, we're free and we should use that opportunity to direct ourselves toward meaning. But the apathetic son is laid back and could go either way. He could change and care, or he could just slump back and go to sleep.
The hardest thing about reaching Jews today is they're apathetic. They don't really care, they don't want to listen.
TAKE IT PERSONALLY
In truth, each of us is a composite of these Four Sons, the four types of Jews. To some extent, we all want meaning, we're searching and thinking -- like the first son. Yet sometimes we treat life as a joke and we rebel -- like the second son. And sometimes it takes a sunset or suffering to arouse us to think and change -- like the third son. And at times we feel apathetic, walking around in a daze -- like the fourth son.
These are the Four Sons within each of us.