Four Sons

May 9, 2009

8 min read


Educate the child according to his way.

King Solomon advises us to "educate the child according to his way." What this means is that every child is and must be related to in a way that befits his or her character. Our offspring are not mere replicas of ourselves, nor did they step off a page in the latest book on how to raise children. Moreover, there will never be another child who possesses the singular potential which we have been entrusted to nurture and polish.

Find that which is peerless in your child. Identify it, nourish it, praise it, love it, and most of all -- speak to it. The Seder night: there is no better time to focus on your children then now. There is no better time for launching a tailor-made educational dialogue than tonight.

The Wise Son asks: "What are these laws, statutes, and ordinances?"

When the Wise Son looks at Jewish life, he doesn't just see one monolithic mass of commandments. Rather, he breaks them down into various types and categories. The Wise Son has honed his perceptive skills and has learned to draw distinctions. In fact, the ability to be thoughtfully discerning is one of the hallmarks of wisdom.

Each and every one of us is the object of intense competition. Not only do manufacturers and advertisers compete for our attention, but there exist a host of would-be peddlers of ideas and values who vie for our time and energy, our support and commitment, our votes -- and, ultimately, our checkbooks.

Eventually everyone becomes a consumer. From the Wise Son we learn that one of the keys to freedom is becoming a thoughtful and discerning consumer, unless of course you don't mind being left with a bag of goods.

Since the Evil Son has excluded himself from the Jewish people, he has denied God.

When Jews in Ethiopia are in trouble, Israeli soccer fans in Tel Aviv, doctors named Greenfield and Schwartz in St. Louis, and Jews speaking Portuguese on the beaches of Rio all respond. In the last decade, Israel has absorbed almost one million immigrants, which is the proportional equivalent of the entire population of France suddenly relocating to the United States. To Israel's credit, with all the daunting social and economic strains this influx has placed on the country, never once has anyone of any political stripe even hinted that immigration should be slowed or halted.

What are we Jews anyway? Co-religionists, fellow nationals, compatriots -- or are we brothers and sisters? Born of one family and hewn of one stone? Are we bonded by a unifying relationship with God that is deeper than all which seems to divide us and render us strangers? And, could it be that when the rebellious son denies the quality of intrinsic Jewish connectedness, he not only turns his back on his brother, but on his Father as well?

You blunt his teeth... had he been there he would not have been redeemed

Every Jewish child, and that includes us all, must be forced to consider this: Either you're with us or you're not; you can't have it both ways. Tonight, the choice is ours.

Don't mistake our harshness for anger. We love this child as much as we love you and every one else at the Seder tonight. If we didn't care deeply about him we would have told him to take his cynical skepticism and go somewhere else for Passover -- but we didn't. Intent as he may be on hurtling himself into the oblivion of a pseudo identity, we will always remain eager to teach him. We may have to say a few things that are painful for him as well as for us; but sometimes there is no choice.


The Simple Son asks: What is this?

When your child asks you a simple question like, "Why does a magnet stick to metal?" what are you going to say? Or how about this one: "Why doesn't it ever snow in the summer?" Most of us who are omniscient in the eyes of our children find ourselves running for cover when these types of "cute" questions arise. "I'll be right back," we sheepishly assure them, as we are suddenly reminded of an urgent call that has to be made. "Why don't you turn on the Discovery channel...?"

You know why we don't have a lot of answers for our kids? Because we did what we now secretly hope they will soon learn to do -- we stopped asking questions. What a tragedy. We have sacrificed our youthful curiosity, our simplicity, if you will, on the altar of intellectual sophistication.

Inside each and every one of us lives a child of wisdom. We sense that there is more to Judaism than meets the eye. That what distinguishes a statute from an ordinance is more than just Jewish legal jargon, but rather a deeper set of ideas and spiritual constructs. That what separates one holiday from the next is not just the taste of seasonal delicacies, but distinctive opportunities for expanded consciousness. That under the rubric of Judaism is to be found something not only profound and insightful, but deeply personal and meaningful.

Inside us all there is a voice that wants the privilege of a fully panoramic view of Judaism -- To comprehend each facet of the Seder and how every nuance relates to the message of freedom, and the meaning of being a Jew. Listen to that voice. Refuse to sit there and just go through the motions. Be wise! Think, inquire and ask questions. Of Passover and its meaning for starters, and of Judaism and what it says about life as an encore.

If the wisest person in the world was at your Seder and you could only ask two questions -- one about Judaism and one about life -- what would those questions be?


And then there is the son who doesn't even know how to ask.

We act with a sense of urgency to free Jews in Russia, Syria, and Ethiopia. While on many fronts our efforts have met with success, there still exists another form of tyranny which must also incur the force of our wrath. This is the silent tyranny of ignorance. Ignorance, whether forced, induced, or knowingly chosen, is still ignorance. And if you don't know who you are then you are a slave.

My experience with Russian Jews tells me that when seated at a Seder table they will look at the matzah, Charoset, and everything else and ask -- "What is this?" I'm not so sure that those of us who had the privilege to be raised "in the land of the free" are really very different.

Consider this: of the five and a half million Jews in America today, less than two million belong to synagogues. If most of them received a Jewish education, then at best maybe 30 percent of American Jews have ever learned about Judaism. Add to this the fact that most of these "educated" Jews finished their education at the age of 12 or 13; that one million American Jewish children are today being raised as non-Jews, or with no religion at all; and that another six hundred thousand Jewish adults are now practicing other religions, and what you've got is a tyranny of ignorance of immense proportions.

To date, over half a billion dollars has been spent to build Holocaust museums, memorials, and libraries in this country. While honorable monuments to the dead are being erected, the living are quietly exiting the stage of Jewish history.

The Russians can leave, the Ethiopians are home, there may yet be some semblance of peace in the Middle East -- but it is still premature to lay down our arms and our cries for Jewish freedom. Because if you don't know who you are, you will never be truly free.

How would you respond to a young Jew who says, "All my life I never had any religion and I was very happy. Why should I start doing anything Jewish now?"

For the son who doesn't know how to ask, you must initiate it for him. As it says: "You shall tell it to your son on that day." (Exodus 13:8)

At this point the Haggadah reminds us of what we already know -- that we are all responsible for one another. Whatever you know, you must teach. Whatever you possess as a Jew, you must share. At the moment when you stand face to face with a Jew who doesn't even know what to ask, then the responsibility becomes yours. Whether this is a Russian child, your own child, the child of a neighbor... or the child in the mirror.

Analysis of the Four Sons

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

The Torah speaks to four children: one wise, one bad, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.

Human beings reveal themselves by the questions they ask.

The Wise Son identifies the inconsistencies in the situation. Just as we saw in the Four Questions, he wonders why the night is filled with symbols of slavery -- matzah and bitter herbs, yet at the same time symbols of freedom -- reclining and dipping.

Similarly, we see from the episode of the Burning Bush, that the wise Moses posits the point of contradiction: "The bush is burning, but it is not consumed."

Contrast this with the Simple Son whose question is merely: "What's this?"

The Evil Son, of course, doesn't ask a question at all. Rather he makes an antagonistic statement, couched as a rhetorical question.

Finally, the Fourth Son is defined by his very inability to ask questions!

The Evil Son is ridiculing, so we answer him in the third person -- Li v'lo lo. He doesn't deserve to be addressed directly. So why is he answered at all? Because, the Vilna Gaon explains, the rest of the household needs to hear a comeback to preserve the honor of the Torah.

Why does the Haggadah say to "break his teeth?" Because his problem is one of arrogance. If you can break that, then perhaps he can be influenced to join the Jewish people. This lesson is born out through a fascinating Gematria (Jewish numerology): If you take an evil person (in Hebrew, rasha -- gematria 570) and subtract the rough, biting edge of "his teeth" (shinav -- 366), then you're left with 204, the Gematria of tzaddik -- a righteous person!

By the way, notice how the Evil Son says "What is this work to you?" He looks at mitzvot as a burden. So remember: When you're cleaning for Passover and your fingers are sore from scrubbing the oven, don't complain about how hard it is -- or else you're doing just like the Evil Son!

The Simple Son in Hebrew is called tam. It doesn't mean "stupid." Really tam is more accurately translated as sincere, or pure. That sounds like a positive character trait!

But it truth, tam can manifest as vulnerable naivete -- unless it is balanced with street-sense.

The Chafetz Chaim explains that why the Torah refers to Jacob as ish-tam, literally "tam-man." He had the perfect combination: both the maturity of an adult, and the purity of a child.

The son who doesn't know how to ask is listed last. He doesn't know and doesn't care. Apathy is one of the worst possible character traits. Because the opposite of love is not hate. It's apathy.

Question of the Evil Son

by Rabbi Stephen Baars

The Four Sons are listed in a peculiar order. One would expect the Evil son should be mentioned last -- not second.

The reason is understood by the quality of each one's questions. The "bad son's" question is second best. He specifically inquires about the service. This shows he is thinking and alert. He is just a little off focus. But at least he's clear on what bothers him. He's easier to reach because if you answer him in the right way, you can get him to change.

The Sages tell us that a good question is better than a good answer. Life cannot be better tomorrow unless you are aware of the problems today. This is the value of a question. Nobody is irredeemable, but the degree to which a person can be helped is relative to his questioning mind. The more we honestly question, the better our hope for fulfillment, satisfaction, and true peace of mind.

We learn something else from the Evil Son: Thinking itself does not imply the person is good. Society mistakenly rewards those who are smart. Perhaps we'd do better to honor those who are good.

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