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“To Him, They Are All My Sons” (Pesach)

There’s no Jewish holiday which caters to the kids quite like Passover. The text from which we read at the Seder is called a Haggadah, i.e. a “telling,” because of the commandment for parents to “tell their sons and daughters” (cf. Ex. 13:8) the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.  A small piece of matzah known as the Afikoman is hidden away and searched for by the children, who receive a reward upon finding it. This is done in order “to keep young ones awake until the end of the meal” (Pesahim 109a). In the meantime, we perform a range of unusual rituals aimed at piquing their interest. Some of these rituals, like the double-dipping of vegetables into salt water, carry no particular symbolic significance – at least according to the simple reading of the Talmud, the entire purpose of this practice is to alert the boys and girls present that tonight, something is different (Pesahim 114a). Other rituals, including the consumption of bitter herbs and the law of reclining during the repast, are more closely connected with the theme of the festival. But all involve the children in one way or another, via the Ma Nishtana: the customary “four questions” which we have them recite early on in order to get the evening underway.

So Passover is all about the kids. Specifically, it is about educating our youth in the history and traditions of our people. To aid adults in approaching this most momentous of tasks, our sages compiled a handy manual, the Haggadah, filled with lesson plans outlining what they should teach. The book also comes with instructions for how they should teach. In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon advises parents to “rear each child according to his or her unique way” (Prov. 22:6). Yet whereas Neil Fleming might have interpreted this verse as a reference to different sorts of learning styles, like auditory, visual or tactile, the rabbis had a different reading:

Illustration of the Four Sons from a 1695 Haggadah printed in Amsterdam. Image retrieved from the University of Chicago Library News.

Illustration of the Four Sons from a 1695 Haggadah printed in Amsterdam. Image retrieved from the University of Chicago Library News.

The Torah speaks of four children: One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one does not know how to ask. The wise one asks: “What are the testimonials, statutes and laws Hashem our G-d commanded you?” To him, you should explain everything. The wicked one asks: “What does this service mean to you?” – i.e. to “you,” but not to “him…” To him, you should say: “It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt” – i.e. for “me,” but not for “you.” The simple son asks “What’s this?” To him, you should say: “With a strong hand Hashem took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude.” And to the one who does not know how to ask, you should say: “And you should tell your son on that day, saying ‘It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt.'”

I’ve been reciting this passage, which appears only a few pages into the Haggadah, since I was about six years old, yet only during my year in Israel was I first challenged to think about it critically. From where did our sages draw their inspiration for these four “prototypical” children with which they present us? The answer is provided in the very first words of the passage: their source is “the Torah.” Indeed, each of the questions which this text ascribes to the “four children” appears for the first time in the five books of Moses, as do all of the parents’ answers to those questions. But as my teacher from Yeshivat Lev HaTorah, R. Asher Friedman (“R. Asher”), pointed out at his Seder last March, there’s one major problem with Hazal’s citation: it’s been misquoted! When we compare the question that each son allegedly asks with the answer that he is supposed to be given, we discover that the conversations do not correspond with those recorded in the original manuscript. Here’s a closer look at the Torah’s version:

Wise What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the ordinances, which the Lord our God has commanded you? We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand… Deut. 6:20-5
Wicked What does this service mean to you? It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, and He saved our houses. Ex. 12:26-7
Simple What is this? With a mighty hand did the Lord take us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage… Ex. 13:14-5
Doesn’t know how to ask N/A And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, “It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt…” Ex. 13:8

Although R. Asher did not walk us through each of these verses during his Seder, a few interesting points stood out when I later looked them up:

(1)   The wicked son is criticized in the Haggadah for separating himself from the group (“What does this service mean to you?”) Yet the question of the wise son, which the Haggadah does not quote in full, is also phrased in a way that removes him from the group (“…the Lord commanded you”).

(2)   At any rate, both the wise and the wicked son, in the original text of the Torah, receive an answer which seeks to include them in the group: “We were slaves in Egypt…” and “…He saved our houses.” In the Haggadah, by contrast, the wicked son is deliberately excluded by his father.

(3)   Most fascinating of all: the terms “wise,” “wicked,” “simple,” and “doesn’t-know-how-to-ask” don’t appear in the Torah at all. Nor do any other distinguishing titles. In the original text, there’s only one character, and it’s the same one throughout: “your son.”

Of course, the rabbis knew all of this. Why then did they decide to play with the script? R. Asher offered a fascinating suggestion. The Haggadah introduces its typology with a curious phrase: “The Torah speaks about (כנגד) four children…” We usually translate the word כנגד as “about” (or, more semantically, “facing,” or “corresponding to”). However, the primary meaning of the word כנגד is “opposite” or “against.” Perhaps, then, the correct interpretation is as follows: “The Torah spoke כנגד – against, in opposition to – four sons” – that is, the Torah rejects the very notion of dividing children into the sort of rigid identities implied by a model of “four sons.” Read thus, our passage is not promoting the practice of pedagogic pigeonholing – it is parodying it!

I really love R. Asher’s idea, and would like only to expand upon it slightly. In my mind, I imagine the authors of the Haggadah turning to parents at the beginning of the Seder with the following warning: “Tonight is all about the kids. You might think you have a wise son and a wicked son, a simple one and a disinterested one. But know that the Torah does not speak of four sons – it only speaks of one. This is because each child is a world unto himself, capable of asking “simple” questions in one moment, and “wise” ones in another. Nobody fits into a mould. Children grow. They are dynamic. They can and will surprise you, if you just give them the chance.” In short, God does not differentiate between the “good” and the “wicked” son. As Joe Keller discovers at the climax of one of Arthur Miller’s greatest plays (and we’re paraphrasing a bit here): “To Him, they are all my sons.”

Original footage of the “Stanford prison experiment.”

In fact, I think that this idea might have even more to do with the theme of Passover than we immediately realize. What is slavery, after all, if not the imposition of restrictions upon certain classes of people, based on an assumption that factors as incidental as a person’s social status, economic standing or ethnic identity tell us all that we need to know about their character and intelligence? And what is freedom if not the conviction that all men and women can indeed succeed, each in his or her own way, given ample opportunity? There is a large body of literature which discusses the ways in which the “roles” which we are assigned or expected by society to fill influence our beliefs about ourselves, and our behavior around others. We won’t have time to delve into it here, but those interested may wish to read up on the stereotype threat, the Stanford prison experiment, or – perhaps most relevant, because it deals directly with children – the blue eyed/brown eyed exercise. At any rate, an American sociologist famous for developing the concept of the “looking glass self” summarized the essential idea behind all of these studies perhaps better than anyone else: “I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am – I am what I think you think I am.”

Those were the words of Charles Cooley. In an earlier era, somewhere else in the world, Shakespeare’s Iago memorably told Roderigo, “I am not what I am” (Othello, 1.1.65). But long before both Cooley and Shakespeare, God, at the burning bush, sent Moses to free the slaves with a vastly different message: “I will be what I will be” (Ex. 3:14). This, in a phrase, is the Torah’s vision of self-identity. Never should we feel confined by the mistakes of our past, nor may we rest on yesterday’s laurels. Hashem “creates the world every day anew,” we say in our morning prayers, and, in the spirit of imitatio dei, it is our responsibility to constantly create ourselves anew, too: each day, a little wiser, a little kinder, and a little freer.

Shabbat shalom and early wishes for a Chag Pesach Kasher v’sameach! 

1 Comment

  1. Howard Glowinsky says:

    Chag Kasher vSameach!
    Nice Vort Alex.,

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