The most important son at the Seder is not the wise one.
He’s not the one for whom the Haggadah (Ex. 13:8, “v’higgad’ta levin’cha”, “you shall narrate to your son”) explains the laws of the festival. Being so studious, he is sure to want to delve into the sources for himself.
Nor is it the wicked, the “rasha”, even though his nasty attitude is a shock and we deal with him robustly.
It is not the third son, the “tam”, because if we coax him and treat him gently, we can get him on side.
No – the most important son is the fourth, the “she’eino yodei’a lish’ol”, he who “knows not to ask”. It is for him that the Haggadah is designed.
When this son fails to ask, the parent is told, “At petach lo” – “you open up the discussion, take the initiative, tell him the story yourself”.
Why doesn’t he ask? If he is too young, time will fix that problem. If he is ignorant of Judaism and finds it all strange, some study will remove the mystery (though hopefully not the mystique). If he is too passive, a motivational approach will arouse him and awaken his interest.
Is it that he doesn’t want to ask?
The reason might be smugness. Maybe he is so cocksure that he sees no need to inquire or find out more.
Should we treat him like a wicked son? Should we be tough on him, saying harshly that people like him would have prevented the Exodus? If the Israelites had not protested against the slavery and yearned for salvation, if they had not been desperate to break free, the enslavement would have gone on longer.
Possibly some people in Egypt held back out of cussedness and just wanted to be left alone. Faced with that kind of son, the parent is told,
“At petach lo” – “take the initiative, get the message across that it’s worth getting information!”
He need not endorse all that people do, say, or are. That would make him a sheep without a mind of his own. He needn’t meekly follow the herd. If he wants to rebel, so be it, though we’d prefer him to be a rebel within the community.
Maybe he is afraid that someone will tell him not to ask. Being told, “Freg nit!” “Don’t ask!” is a guaranteed put-off, leaving a person muzzled, blocked, unable to query or to challenge the powers that be, being, literally, “one who doesn’t ask”.
What we need to persuade him is that asking questions is not only permitted but an accepted Jewish habit.
How sad it is when somebody is a “she’eino yodeia’a lish’ol”, who knows from bitter experience that it’s better not to ask.
I remember what a senior colleague said when as a youngster in the rabbinic profession I urged a conference to discuss the moral problems of the time. Asked for an example, I mentioned drug-taking. My colleague said,
“It’s simple. Just say two things, ‘Freg nit’, don’t ask! ‘M’torf nit’, don’t do it!”
I didn’t retort. There was something unrabbinic in the riposte I had received. It went against all I believed about rabbis. I thought they had all been brought up on the Talmudic process of asking, arguing and counter-reasoning, but maybe this one hadn’t.
The sages debated what it meant when people asked questions. Was it a bad sign? The need to ask questions is an indication of ignorance. Was it a good sign? Asking questions is an indication of interest.
These days, if and when the fourth sons (or daughters or anyone) ask questions, the answer can’t be “Freg nit” or even “M’torf nit!” If questions need asking, let them be asked. If there is an action which the rules say not to do, let it be talked through, not just banned outright.
Isidor Isaac Rabi was head of the physics department at Columbia, a Nobel laureate. Asked what got him involved in science, he said, “I couldn’t help it!” He said that when he was a child, he went to a public school on the East Side of Manhattan. Every day when he came home, his mother greeted him, “Did you ask any good questions today?” Because of his mother, Rabi dedicated his life to questions.
The fourth son at Seder has to ask questions, or else he will never find the truth and the community will not make progress.
The Haggadah never explicitly answers the Mah Nishtanah. Four good questions, but where are the four good answers? True, you find that if you get through the Haggadah to the end, it has more or less explained all that the questioner wants to know. Once you have the full facts, the questions seem to fall away.
But there is a deeper explanation. The simplest child can ask such deep questions that even the wisest greybeard cannot answer. Acquiring the full answers might be beyond us, at least at this stage of human and personal development.
We might achieve tentative answers to a few of the questions. But that doesn’t make the whole list of questions wrong or redundant. It tells us not to be in a hurry or expect everything to become clear at once.
Mendele Mocher Sefarim says,
“Not all questions may be asked, nor is there an answer for every question”.
He is only half right. Every question may and ought to be asked, but there might not be an answer. Or at least not yet.
The rabbis say that before the Messiah comes, Elijah will come on earth to answer all the open-ended questions that have piled up over the ages.
In the meantime we have to keep waiting. We can certainly keep asking.
TALK ABOUT THREE THINGS.
Rabban Gamliel says,
“Whoever has not spoken of three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his duty; they are pesach (paschal lamb), matzah and maror“.
Apart from its liturgical/ritual context, this famous statement suggests three things that should be part of every Jew’s thinking.
Pesach, from the word “pass over”, reminds us that God passed over many other peoples and singled us out.
He gave us a way of life that sanctifies every moment, a faith that carries us forward, ideas that make sense of the world, a God who stretches our minds and moves our hearts.
Matzah, the bread of affliction, tells us that Judaism can be a resented burden, but it can also be a joy, an excitement, a source of exhilaration.
We can complain that it is hard, but we know it is good. If we so decide, Judaism is not bread of affliction but bread of redemption.
Maror reminds us that life is not always sweetness. There are times when the going is tough. How mature we are depends on whether we handle adversity badly or well. If we merely say,
“It’s not fair!”,
we’ve solved nothing.
We can get out of adversity only if we say,
“Nothing will stop me believing in God, in human beings, and in myself”.