Judaism: 4 Sons - A Lesson for Parents and Teachers
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu SafranThe writer is an educator, author and lecturer. His most recent book is...
With a simple command, God makes clear that teaching is fundamental to our observance of Passover. Fundamental and obligatory. I must teach my son, my children, of the great miracle God performed in delivering me from slavery. Not only must I teach, but my teaching must be personal – to me and to my student.
That we should teach children about Pesach makes sense. It is a holiday of children, from the time Pharaoh commanded the midwives, “…look at the birth-stool [of the Hebrew women]; if it is a boy, kill him!”
Pharaoh demanded that each son be cast into the river, and yet the children of Israel multiplied – in numbers and in strength. As did the suffering of the children. The youngest were not shielded from the horrors of slavery, nor were they denied when redemption was at hand. Moshe was clear when he spoke to Pharaoh, seeking the freedom of the people. “We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters.”
It is no accident that we are commanded to “tell your son on that day…”
But what does it mean to “tell your son”? What does it mean to teach? Too often, as parents and teachers, we think it means talking at our children, delivering to them good and worthy content that they should simply hear and assimilate into their minds and hearts.
Would that it were so! But it is not always so easy to teach our children, as we learn when we gather at the Seder table and learn about the four sons; as we find ourselves confronting the daunting challenge that keneged arbaah banim dibrah Torah, not unfairly translated to mean, “the words of the Torah are in opposition to four sons!”
It is useful to consider this understanding because it presupposes conflict and discord between Torah and each of the four sons. This presumption of discord tells us less about four sons than about four “postures” toward Judaism, each with its unique challenges and rewards for parents and teachers alike. Each of these postures falls short of full conformity to genuine Torah commitment, each suggests a disconnect between generations, and each demands that we find a way to successfully teach if the beautiful chain of our tradition is to continue.
We associate honor with the chacham but looking more closely, even the chacham poses a challenge that must be met. Think of the father of these four sons. He is a Jew from the old world. No title. He belongs to no “party”. He identifies with no particular ideological or philosophical movement. He is, simply, a Jew. He adheres to nothing other than avodat Hashem and yirat Shamayim.
He raises a wise son, a chacham. His son is wise, and smart, and with eyes to see the brilliance of God’s creation. The son is orthodox, for sure, but for him simple emunah is not enough. The world is glorious, miraculous. But it also has an intrinsic order and logic, aspects that intrigue and compel him. He is logical and orderly. He has a need to organize mitzvot into divisions and sub-divisions; edot, chukim and mishpatim.
Yes, yes. Of course he believes and observes, but until he understands and digests the content of his belief on an intellectual level, he remains dissatisfied and unfulfilled. “What is the meaning which our God has commanded you?”
Even though we might want to temper the chacham’s need to intellectualize, we recognize his overall positive traits and are only too happy to teach him all of Torah, from the beginning up to and including the very last law of Pesach, afikoman. Moreover, we are assured that as long as the taste of matzah and flavor of Jewish observance and commitment remains with him, the chacham will continue his search for greater meaning.
And so we see, as the generations continue, that the chacham does indeed continue in his personal religious growth but then sets different goals for his own son. His experience taught him that classical yeshiva education is too narrow-minded for his own child, a child of the late 20th century.
“Seek a profession,” he advises his son. “Computers. Finance. Law. Medicine.” He encourages his son to study in one of the Ivy League schools, universities that only a generation earlier had restricted Jews but now which hold the best possibilities for networking and advancement.
The son diligently follows his father’s guidance and advice. Why then is the father surprised when, at spring break, his son returns home only to arrogantly challenge him. “What is the meaning of this service to you!”
The father is astonished at the appearance of the rasha, the wicked son. Confused. Frustrated.
Meanwhile, the rasha father cannot help but, at best, raise a tam, a simple son. Such a son is the only logical result of an alienated and confusing secularized Jewish home. This father only begrudgingly attends the family Passover dinner. Sentimentality and faded memories of a caring and loving grandpa zeide are not enough to overcome the fast-moving, unethical and immoral secular world he occupies. How can such a man teach his son to embrace Judaism, yiddishkeit? The poor child does not even have the tools to ask a question!
And if he could, what is there to ask? His great-grandfather, long gone cannot bridge the distance created by his father and grandfather, lost in their own discomfort with “old fashioned” and “confusing” rituals. Such a tam, when he arrives at midnight to a Jewish spring party and sees candles lit, sings Happy Birthday! (See the Riskin Haggadah, p. 61)
As parents and educators, do we throw our hands up in frustration and surrender to this terrible situation, conceding that so very many Jewish children are simply lost to our tradition and laws? Of course not. But, as we should recognize from the Four Sons in our Haggadah, “teaching” demands that we teach to our students and not expect our students to conform to how we teach. We must pay heed to how we teach and who we teach for that truly informs why we teach.
Who does not love teaching a chacham? What a pleasure to have before us a mind and soul delighted and determined to grasp the beauty of God’s world and our traditions! But more and more, in yeshivas and observant homes we are limiting ourselves to teaching only our chachamim. We do so at our peril! There are so very few chachamim.
Rabbi Yechezkel Mickelsohn once asked in jest, “Why doesn’t the Torah recommend the same solution and approach of hakeh et sheenav – blunting the teeth of the rasha – as does the Haggadah?” He reasoned that the Torah speaks of many reshaim, referring to them as “b’neichem, your sons” (plural form). To battle a multitude of reshaim is an epic and dangerous undertaking, and most likely not one that would result in success. The Ba’al Haggadah on the other hand, speaks of only one rasha, who perhaps could be dealt with.
How are we to make sure all four sons remain in the fold?
Before providing a response, we find in the Hagaddah a blessing in which we extol God for being the Makom, for being in the place of our misery and bringing about our miraculous redemption. We then continue, “Blessed is He who gave the Torah to His people Israel, blessed is He.” God not only redeemed us from misery, He also gave us – all of us – Torah.
All of us. Not just the fathers. Not just the teachers. Not just the chachamim. All of us. All the sons. All types. All backgrounds. Blessed is God, who gave the Torah to His people Israel. Blessed is He. The Torah speaks about four children; one who is wise and one who is wicked; one who is simple and one who does not even know how to ask a question.
But still… there are times when a starting point seems impossible to find, when it seems in vain to effectively communicate Torah values and ideals to the uninitiated, to the cynical, simple, negative youngster and even to the extremely bright student who believes he “knows it all.”
Perhaps part of the trouble is the desire to find a single “starting point.” Each of the four sons asks profoundly different questions; each is unique in his difference from the others. Doesn’t each deserve an equally individualized response? Yet, more and more we provide a “cookie cutter”, one-size-fits-all Torah education, discarding those for whom it does not seem to work! The Rambam instructs us that each son be taught according to his own understanding and abilities. Yet I would argue that the problem is not just the student but with the teacher.
How to motivate the parent or teacher to engage the child who is simple or rebellious?
We are taught there were a total of four zechuyot, four merits, which together added up to the Israelites’ ultimate redemption and exodus from Egypt.
First, there was Zechut Avot, the Merit of the Fathers, “The God of your Fathers appeared to me…” followed by the covenant established with the Fathers – “and God recalled His covenant.”
Then there existed the zechut of kabbalat haTorah, the merit of the giving of the Torah. “When you take the nation out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
Finally, they merited redemption on Account of the Paschal sacrifice and circumcision which they observed, “and I shall see the blood and pass over their houses.”
Rather than judge the posture and presentation of the Four Sons when they arrive at the Seder table, it would be better to recognize that each arrives with his own zechut, his own merit and inherent right to be taught. No Jew is to be shut out of Jewish education. Each son comes to the Seder table with a rightful claim to his share of Sinai.
The simple son leans on his having been equally present and part of Kabbalat haTorah even as the “one who knows not even how to ask” relies on his Zechut Avot. We are oh so quick to judge the rasha but while it is true that the wicked son might very well have strayed, his claim to the covenant established by God with his Fathers is undeniable.
The wise son calls upon all four merits, even if these merits are not as yet perfected in him. It seems then that the challenge of the Exodus story, Sipur Yetzitat Mitzrayim, is not simply teaching individual sons based on their differences in attitudes, experiences and knowledge. Yes, such a response goes without saying; the narrating, Maggid, experience requiring sensitive, discerning and caring fathers and educators.
But the greater challenge is the one that redeems all four sons! The greater challenge is in finding a way to bring each into the greater fold rather than callously discarding them. The greater challenge is in seeking and finding each individual child’s merit, opening avenues of communication with each and every type of student and raising them with the love of Torah.
Such an education demands the creativity of the heart, not just the mind. It demands more than “classroom management skills”, it asks us to love, to care, to recognize in those whose behavior and attitude in not what we would want, the soul and humanity they possess.
Discovering a child’s abilities is a challenge. Discovering a child’s merits is an accomplishment. But it is our task. “On that day, you shall teach your son…”
In the Haggadah, each of the four sons poses a question. Yet we find only three answers. The wicked son and the one who “knows not how to ask” are given the same answer!
The late Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner explains that there are two basic methods through which the mitzvah of Sipur Yetziat Mitzrayim may be accomplished. The first is simply through Haggadah, telling, relating and sharing the story of Egypt. The second involves a give and take between the story teller and the listener.
These two modes are unrelated and are not necessarily dependent on each other. One can tell a story without being prompted or asked, just as one would respond to a searching and curious individual. The Haggadah proclaims that “concerning four sons did the Torah speak, a wise one, a wicked one, a simple one, and one who is unable to ask.” It never limits us to a single method of answer or communication. That very open-ended-ness invites us to find ways to communicate, to share and inspire the miraculous content of our redemption with all four sons.
For the wise and simple, parents and teachers have the opportunity to be not merely maggid but also respond to their personal inquiries and curiosities and most importantly, to provoke and prod and inspire.
Rabbi Hutner lesson is that there is more than one way “to skin a cat”. So too, there are many ways to share and teach the ideas, ideals and concepts that must be and deserve to be communicated at Pesach. So it is to the wicked and the one unable to ask, we simply “lay it out there”. We tell it as it is, without anticipation of follow-up questions and reactions.
It is our task to discover the appropriate method for the respective student. At our Seder tables, we too often “fear” that our rasha child will “infect” our other children; that our OTD child will somehow draw our chacham son away. But the opposite is often true – the love and respect we show our OTD child demonstrates the power of our love and respect to our other children, even as it keeps them close to the fold, always knowing that they belong with us and to us.
As parents and teachers, we are obligated to teach. But in order to truly fulfill our responsibility, we must embrace the truth that every Jew has a right to learn and to be respected –to be successful, each individual Jew deserves an individual “answer”, an answer that can be found if we only take the time to discover the individual merit.