Judaism: Telling of Freedom
We are all intimately familiar with the four sons. After all, they appear at the beginning of the Haggadah, when we are still awake and alert. “Concerning four sons the Torah spoke: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask”.
Year after year, these same four sons turn up at our Seder. And to each one we give the answer that is designed for him personally.
To the wise son who asks about the halakhot which Hashem our G-d has commanded, we give a brief halakhic answer: “We eat nothing after the Pesach sacrifice”.
When the wicked son excludes himself by asking, “What is this service to you?”, we agree with him: “For this reason Hashem acted for me when I left Egypt”. Yes, wicked son. You want to be excluded? – Very well, remain excluded.
Yet though this wicked son tries to exclude himself, he turns up at our Seder year after year, generation after generation, even after all these millennia! Yes, wicked son, continue excluding yourself – but know that your exclusion is our way of including you! The Rebbe of Worke (Rebbe Yitzchak Yisrael Kalisch, 1779-1848) said: What is our response to the wicked son? – We include him against his will! His very opposition to the Jewish tradition becomes part of the Jewish tradition.
And the Rizhiner Rebbe (Rebbe Yisrael Friedman of Rizhin, 1796-1850) added: “If the wicked son were to know that in opposing God he actually obeys Him, he would have a heart attack.
And then comes the simple son with his simple question: “What’s this?” and we give him the simple answer: “HaShem took us out of Egypt, the slave-house, with a mighty hand”.
And finally the fourth son – the one who doesn’t even know enough to know what to ask. He sits quietly, patiently – “and you initiate the discussion”, using the feminine “at” rather than the masculine “atah”. Even though, as the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) says, the father instructs his son, nevertheless here the wording is feminine – “at” – you the mother. Instruct your son, mother, in the way that only a mother can, because a mother’s instruction is more loving than a father’s.
“Hear, my son the moral chastisement of your father, and forsake not the Torah of your mother” said King Solomon (Proverbs 1:8). Strict discipline comes from the father; the Torah – the all-encompassing love – comes from the mother. “At” – the feminine “you”, you the mother – initiate the discussion for the son who is so estranged from Judaism that he doesn’t even know what questions to ask.
But these eternal four sons do not appear at the very beginning of the Seder Night. Though we have barely started the Haggadah, we state that “the Torah spoke” – spoke in the past tense. “Kenegged arba’ah banim dibrah Torah” – the Torah has already spoken about these four sons. Even at this early stage, the Torah has already prepared us for these four sons. Before these four sons entered the Haggadah, we already arranged our Seder to greet them.
We began with Kadesh (Sanctification) and Ur’chatz (Washing the Hands for purification), anticipating the wise son.
Then came Karpas – a green vegetable dipped in bitter salt water. The blessing for the Karpas – “Boreh p’ri ha’adamah” (“blessed be He…Who creates the fruit of the ground”) – also includes the Maror (the bitter herbs) that we will eat later on in the Seder. We have already included the bitterness; we have already invited the wicked son – nay, forced the wicked son! – to join us.
Then came Yachatz – breaking the middle matzah, keeping the smaller piece in the table and hiding away the larger piece. Thus we prepared for the simple son, the son who can only grasp the simplest ideas. Don’t complicate his mind with complex rituals: a small piece if matzah is all he can relate to.
And then we began Maggid – relating the story of the Exodus from Egypt. “This is the bread of affliction…” Don’t wait for the fourth son to ask any questions; “you initiate the discussion”. Tell of what happened in generations gone by. Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon, and Shimon Ben-Zoma will enter our story briefly. And as soon as they leave, the four sons will enter our house, sit at our table at the places we have already prepared, and wait for us to address them each.
And then, as the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) says: “We pour the second cup of wine, and here the son asks his father: Mah nishtanah ha-layla ha-zeh – How is this night different from all other nights?...And according to the son’s understanding his father instructs him”.
The father starts by teaching his wise son the most basic identity and most fundamental halachah of Pesach: “On all nights we eat chametz and matzah, this night only matzah”.
Then the father turns to the wicked son: “On all nights we eat all vegetables, this night bitter herbs”. No, wicked son, you don’t join us on other nights. On other nights you really are absent. On other nights we shun the bitter herbs of your heresy and the disasters it has brought on us. But on this night you will join us, whether you like it or not: on this night we eat bitter herbs!
The simple son needs a simple answer, something he can relate to without too much intellect: “On other nights we do not dip our food even once; on this night we dip twice”.
And finally we give the fourth son – the son who lacks even the most basic knowledge and understanding – something equally simple: “On other nights we eat either sitting straight or reclining; on this night, we all recline”.
Actually, these last two have been changed since the times of the Mishnah. In the original version (Pesachim 10:4), the third difference we list – the difference which we dedicate to the simple son – was: “On other nights we eat meat roasted, stewed, or cooked; on this night only roasted”. This, of course, was a reference to the Korban Pesach (the Paschal Lamb which had to be roasted whole) and the Korban Chagigah (the Festival Sacrifice). Only after it became impossible to offer the sacrifices was the reference to roasted meat dropped.
And the fourth son received an answer similar to that which today is reserved for the simple son: “On other nights we dip our food once; on this night, twice”.
Each son receives his appropriate response – brief and apposite. And then we expand on each one.
Immediately after the four sons, we analyse how to recount the Exodus. “Yachol me-Rosh Chodesh…” – “Maybe [we should start relating the Exodus] from the beginning of Nisan? But the Torah disproves this by saying ‘…on that day (Exodus 13:8). So maybe while it is still day? – But the Torah says ‘…because of this’ (ibid.)…” and so on. This introduction to Talmudic logic is for the benefit of the wise son.
Then we turn to the wicked son: “From the beginning our ancestors were idol worshippers…”. You think you have achieved your ambition to be wicked? You haven’t even begun! You think you can match our ancestors? (Your ancestors too, but we say “our ancestors” just to continue excluding you, even as you sit at our table, participating against your will in our Seder.) You, wicked son, don’t even know what idolatry is! You can’t even live up to your wickedness without betraying your intentions!
Then: “Blessed be He Who keeps His promise to Israel…”. Are we still talking to the wicked son? Reminding him of G-d’s promise to Israel – from which he has excluded himself? Or have we already turned to the simple son? Maybe this addresses them both.
Certainly the simple son can understand our words, “Ve-hi she’amdah la-avoteinu le-lanu…” – “This is what has stood by our fathers and us…because in every single generation they rise against us to exterminate us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand”. Not too complicated for the simple son to understand.
And finally we turn to the fourth son, the one who does not know enough even to ask. “Tzei u-l’mad…” – “Go out and learn”. Begin your studies, young and ignorant son. You think you can learn by sitting here at the Seder table? No no – “go out and learn”.
And thus we launch the Seder Night. The ARIza”l (Rabbi Yitzchak ben Shlomo Luria, Israel, 1534-1572) taught that the word “Pesach” is a contraction of “peh sach” (“the mouth speaks”). The mitzvah of the night of Pesach is to speak of the Exodus from Egypt and the redemption, and – in the words of the Haggadah – “anyone who tells of the Exodus from Egypt at great length is praised”.
This, indeed, is the practical halakhah. In the words of the Rambam, “It is a positive mitzvah from the Torah to tell of the miracles and wonders which were wrought for our fathers in Egypt on the night of the 15th of Nissan… Even if one has no son, even great sages are obligated to tell of the Exodus from Egypt. And anyone who tells in great length of the events which happened is greatly praised” (Mishneh Torah, laws of Chametz and Matzah 7:1).