“You must open him up…”
The Passover Haggadah
The Seder is an evening meant to open us up. Let’s face it. After four cups of wine, most of us are pretty open. We ask questions. We sing. We eat. We engage in conversation. And when children at our table clam up, we try to get them to talk. It’s all right there in the Four Sons section.
We all know the problem with the four sons or the politically correct: four children. Who will take on the parts? If we give the wise son to the person with the best SAT scores at the table, we will just be confirming stereotypes. If we make the most difficult child at the table the wise son, he will have no street cred. And, of course, this section of the Haggadah always opens up a Pandora’s box of questions about labeling children. On the one hand, we are delighted that two thousand years ago, our sages had a concept of differentiated learning. Everyone must hear our master story and be able to retell it. There is no one-size-fits-all way to communicate the story. We have to be thoughtful about how each person absorbs it.
But the fact that children were given these harsh labels in relation to the story is profoundly troubling if we concentrate on the “wicked” son. To add salt to the wound, there are actually two versions of the four sons. We use one from a rabbinic collection of midrash (the Mekhilta), but the other appears in the Jerusalem Talmud and has not only a wicked son but a stupid one as well.
The four sons are based on four verses in the Bible that speak of our responsibility to tell this story. Three verses come from the book of Exodus (12:26-27, 13:8, 13:14) and one from Deuteronomy (6:20). Our haggadah passage makes a pastiche of these verses, cutting and pasting to make the typologies coherent. The rabbis of old wondered why the Bible needed to tell us in four different places that we must tell the story and understood that the repetition spelled obligation.
We must tell the story differently to different people because we all have different ways of learning. No child is all wise or all wicked, but any of us can approach a learning experience with openness, disinterest or confusion. Some children have rabid curiosity and want to gain mastery of every detail. Some see no value in study and find learning boring and irrelevant. Others have a more simple approach, and some do not know where to start. All are at the table. All are spoken to. All have a place.
In perhaps one of the most remarkable commentaries I’ve encountered on the four sons section of the Haggadah, none beats the Hasidic story of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), who called himself the child who does not know how to ask. With such a child, we try to open him up by telling him the story and engaging him. How could Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, an esteemed scholar, put himself in this category? But here is how he saw this child:
“The father must take initiative. Lord of the world, are You not my Father? Am I not Your son? I do not even know what questions to ask. You take the initiative and disclose the answers to me. Show me, in connection with whatever happens to me, what is required of me. What are you asking of me?”
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak did not call himself the child who did not know how to ask in relation to Passover but in relation to life itself. We are all children of a mysterious God who operates in the universe so enigmatically that we do not always know what to ask or what is asked of us. Rabbi Levi insisted that God disclose some answers to help him understand his life’s purpose.
Like Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, we should view the evening as a chance to return to childlike wonder. We try to open others and remain open ourselves to a new way to tell the story, a new prop, a new song, a new insight, a new recipe. Great stories are only as great as the listeners who critique them. With an open heart we can take in a story and the values that the story advances. We all need prompting. Engage us.
Shabbat Shalom and a Joyous Passover