One of my favorite parts of the Passover Seder is the part about the “Four Sons/Children.” It’s a beautifully crafted narrative based on four verses from the Torah; three from Exodus and one from Deuteronomy, that gives us a glimpse not only of the ancient rabbinic mind, but of the much more modern concept of multiple learning modalities. The section begins, “The Torah speaks of four children; one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who doesn’t even know how to ask a question.” All of this is based on the commandment to tell one’s child about Yetziat Mitzrayim, the “Going Out” of Egypt. In three instances, the child asks the question, and in the last, the Torah simply says, “And you will tell your child on that day . . . ”
Of course, we’re supposed to tell the story of how God took us out of slavery in Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” but there’s much more to our experience of telling the Passover story. For many of us, it can mean the difference between a boring, rote Seder (fifth question: When do we eat?) and one that is meaningful and relevant to us in today’s world.
What can we learn from the story of the Four Children? Plenty. The first is to think about the one we call the rasha, the “wicked” child, who asks his question somewhat sarcastically. The text answers him rather harshly, but what’s important to remember is that he’s at the table with everyone else. We don’t exclude him because of his attitude, but we also don’t over-indulge his behavior.
The second thing we learn is that different people have different learning styles, which also explains why the Seder involves more than simply telling the story of the Exodus. We touch things. We point to things. We dip vegetables into salt water, and most importantly, we ask questions and we discuss. And we eat, perhaps the ultimate tactile experience. We also have the opportunity to see the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery through the eyes of those who are not yet liberated; a quick online search will turn up haggadot, supplements and readings that view the Seder through various lenses, social justice, immigration and refugees, women, the LGBTQ community, disability rights and so much more. Because we were strangers and slaves in Egypt, we, as Jews, are commanded to care for those who may be marginalized or oppressed in the world and society.
Third, the four children can be seen as any child throughout various stages of life. The infant who can’t speak to ask; the elementary school child who asks simple questions and needs simple answers; the sassy, sulky teenager (the rasha) and the adult. Most of us can exhibit traits of all four children in a single day.
This Passover, may we be blessed to embrace the diversity in our families and our communities, and may our hearts and minds open widely when we open the door for the Prophet Elijah. I wish you and your loved ones a zissen Pesach, chag sameach!
Susan Elkodsi is the rabbi for the Malverne Jewish Center, which is located at 1 Norwood Ave., Malverne.