Passover does seem obsessed with the number four. We drink four cups of wine, children ask four questions, and four sons ask questions in the Haggadah. It is the evening of questions and answers, of learning and discussion, and it all centers around four.
You see, there are four sons, the wise son, the wicked son, the simpleton, and the one who knows not how to ask. You might think only other people’s children are wicked, simple, or know not how to ask. You and your children are all wise. Well, let’s take an honest look and think again.
Four Learning Impediments
Questions are a quest for enlightenment and there are four impediments to amassing knowledge:
The wise son’s impediment is that he asks and knows too much. Before you have a chance to answer one question, he moves on to another question. You never get a chance to satisfy his questions because his insatiable curiosity drives him along. As a result, he learns a little about many things but doesn’t know a lot about anything. He ends up with many questions and few answers. He also ends up with more information than he needs and more information than he can handle at this stage of his learning curve.
The wicked son’s impediment is that he is always looking for a contrarian point of view. No matter what you tell him, he seeks to twist it and counter it. He thinks he is demonstrating his brilliance, but by stamping himself onto every idea he hears, he stops himself from learning anything new. He can’t hear what you tell him because he is too busy plotting how to outsmart and overtwist what you are saying.
The simpleton’s problem is that he is often distracted. While you are talking to him, he is thinking about something else. When you are ready to move on, he stops you and asks, what did you just say? I missed it. The simpleton can’t learn because, like many children today, his mind is trained to seek new stimulation every two seconds. He simply can’t dwell on any one thing long enough to focus on it and understand it.
The one who knows not how to ask, well that is exactly his problem. He is afraid of appearing foolish to his teachers and fellow students. He might have a basic question, but he waits for someone else to ask it. If no one asks it, he assumes that everyone already knows it and now he is doubly afraid to ask. It is quite likely that no one knows the answer, and everyone knows-not how to ask it. The upshot is that no one understands the lesson because everyone is missing a key critical point.
It Can Be Me
These are four learning impediments, and they are not reserved for any one person at any one time. They are also not exclusive to children. Every adult is a student, and we are all capable of falling into any of these four traps.
At any point, any of us might allow our curiosity to get the better of us and seek more information than we can handle and that is healthy for us to have. Just because we are curious about something doesn’t mean that we need to know it. Sometimes we are better off not knowing it.
At any point, we might feel that if we ask a question and simply accept the answer, we might appear as if we haven’t contributed to the conversation. For the sake of our egos, we turn the idea over in our minds and look for ways to criticize it or reject it. We are not doing it because we really think the idea is wrong. We are sabotaging our own intellectual growth for the sake of our ego. That happens to us all.
At any point, we might find ourselves distracted in the middle of a lecture or a meeting and need to interrupt the flow to ask for something to be repeated. This often happens when the speaker tells a joke, and everyone laughs. We wake up from our reverie and ask, what did he say? We never realize that the speaker told the joke just to wake us up.
At any point in life, we might find ourselves stumped by something that seems simple but we are too embarrassed to ask. There is no one with such absolute confidence that they are never afraid of asking a question. Don’t be ashamed of acknowledging this truth. At any point, any of the four sons can be me.
The Seder is a learning experience and in the course of it we might find ourselves responding in any of the four problematic ways. We might ask too many questions, we might reject answers to serve our ego, we might get distracted and lose focus, and we might be too shy to jump in. Thus, as soon as the discussion ends, the Seder provides solutions to these four learning impediments.
First, we eat Matzah—baked before the dough is allowed to rise. Given enough time and yeast, the dough will rise far too much for our needs. It will grow beyond the bowl, across the table, and even extend to the floor. Rising dough is a perfect example of more being less. We eat Matzah to remember that sometimes, we need to be humble in our quest for knowledge and not bite off more than we can chew.
Second, we eat maror—bitter herbs. This reminds us that when we twist people’s words to make them look silly and make ourselves look smart, we give others a bitter experience. If they are bitter in our presence, we will eventually become bitter ourselves. Best to avoid this bitter experience by blunting the teeth of our attack. Best not to become a bitter herb. Best to transform our bitterness into sweetness.
Next, we eat a Matzah and maror sandwich. I might suggest tongue in cheek that this is to help the simpleton catch up. The fellow who got caught up in conversation and lost track of time. He hurries back to the table to ask what he missed and learns that he missed Matzah and marror. So, we hand him a sandwich and give him a chance to catch up. Moreover, we all eat the sandwich with him, so he doesn’t feel alone.
Finally, we sit back and enjoy the festive meal. Fish, chicken soup, kugel, and delicacies. This is when we relax and engage in chitchat to reduce the tension and let the fourth son relax. Let him feel comfortable and let him bring up any questions he was too embarrassed to ask in the heat of the discussion.
Of course it is a little late to bring up these solutions after the discussions have ended so we give everyone a glimpse of these answers before the discussion even begins. These are the four questions.
-The question about why we eat Matzah reminds us to hold our curiosity and questions in check when they take us too far and too fast.
-The question about why we eat bitter herbs reminds us not to turn the conversation into a bitter experience for ourselves and for others.
-The question about why we dip two times, parsley into saltwater and maror into charoses, reminds us to be patient and repeat things for those who get distracted. It also reminds us to do interesting and curious things—to teach in a gripping and exciting way—to grab the attention of the simpleton. To stimulate the mind of the child who requires frequent and many forms of stimulation to learn.
-The question about why we recline reminds us to unwind, get comfortable—to lower the pressure so that the son who is too stressed and anxious to ask, will find his courage and begin to learn.
The Seder night is about questions and answers, curiosity and learning. It is designed in a manner that is conducive to learning by helping us overcome all our anxieties and learning impediments. Ultimately, the seder’s message is that we do our best learning when we check our egos and approach each other warmly and humbly.
May we all be blessed with an educational, happy, and kosher Pesach.
Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.