BLOG POST by RABBI MARK WILDES | Wednesday, April 28, 2018
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick told the story of a Seder he remembered from his early childhood. Yosef Dov, who would later become the great Rav Solotveitchick, was just about six years old when he was sitting with his family on the Seder night in their hometown in Poland. They had just made the Kiddush and in walks the Rav’s grandfather, the revered Rav Chaim Soloveitchick, also known as Rav Chaim Brisker. One of the leading Torah authorities for the Eastern European Jewish community, Rav Chaim Brisker was a huge Torah sage and part of a dynastic rabbinic family. In walks Rav Chaim wearing a pot on his head. His grandson, little Yosef Dov, looks up at his grandfather and asks: “Zaide, why are you wearing a pot on your head?” To which Rav Chaim answered: “Because tonight, my dear grandson, is different than all other nights. Tonight our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.” He then proceeded to engage the entire family which included small children, women and older men in a dialogue, in a conversation about the story of the Exodus.
Rav Chaim did something strange to try to connect not only with his son, Rav Moshe, who was a great sage too, but also with his six year old grandson, his wife, children and grandchildren. Rav Chaim made certain that everyone at the table was involved in the conversation because that is the mitzvah of the Seder Night – for everyone, no matter what age, background or gender, to speak about and relate to the story of the Exodus of our people. Therefore, the discussion must be tailored to all those assembled and we must do things to make sure everyone is engaged and everyone’s attention is aroused, even if it means wearing a pot on our heads. The idea of tailoring the Seder to whoever is present is most dramatically demonstrated through the famous Fours Sons. The Hagadah speaks about four types of children who each ask their own question at the Seder table, the wise son, the rebellious son, the simple son and the child who cannot even ask. In relating to the very different questions, these different children all ask different questions and receive different answers. In doing so, our Sages teach us a fundamental principal in education: “Teach your son according to his way” (Proverbs 22:6). Based on this verse our Sages teach that children of different dispositions, tendencies, and abilities, need to receive different answers and approaches, even to the same question or event.
This same idea is echoed in the Tanchumah, (an important Midrashic source) which comments on the verse: “Moses spoke and God answered with a voice’” (Exodus 19:19). Our Sages point out that at Mt. Sinai, when God was giving the Torah to the Jewish people, God spoke with a “voice” that Moshe could handle. Similarly, God’s “voice”, says the Tanchumah, came to each and every Jew according to his and her capacity. “The elders heard the voice according to their capacity, the young men according to theirs, the children according to their capacity, the infants according to theirs, the women, all according to their own capacity.” In the same vein, the Hagadah has four different children, representing four different parent-child dialogues, to teach how the Torah recognizes different types of children, all with different questions. Each child receives attention and each is given an answer. Although the wise son’s question is posed in a more sophisticated way than the simple son – this does not mean that only he receives an answer. Each asks and each receives a response. For both the wise and simple son bring their own special strength to the dialogue and to the Jewish community. The wise son brings his profound and inquisitive mind and the simple son – his readiness and purity of faith. As the Brurei Hamidot (commentary on the Mechilta) writes, the opposite of the wicked son is not the wise son but the simple son. For the simple son is ready and willing to serve God in his utter simplicity and faith, to accept every aspect of the Torah, even the non-rational parts, which the rebellious son mocks. And yes, even the rebellious son receives an answer. Even after denying the foundation of our faith he receives an answer because he shows up. Finally, the child who knows not even to ask – for this kind of child, the Hagadah teaches “you must open” – you the parent or teacher must begin a dialogue for this child does not know even enough to pose a question.
The Hagadah is teaching us how to respond to the different kinds of questions posed by the varying types of personalities within the Jewish community. We can no longer afford to simply provide answers for those with background and knowledge. The vast majority of Jews today do not come to the Seder asking the wise son’s question and so we must be patient and in many cases take the initiative and open the conversation. All four sons however are to be commended for being present. The most problematic son is the “fifth son” – a term coined by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, the child who never showed, for Passover and much of Judaism has little or no meaning to him. We must learn how to answer questions posed by all types of Jews, for if we don’t, then in coming Passovers we will find ourselves even without simple sons or children who cannot ask.
However, we must learn how to speak to all Jews for a more fundamental reason: so we can answer the questions posed by our own children. There are some who view the four sons – not as representing four different types of Jews, but as one individual Jew, at different stages of his or her life. A child is born as someone who cannot even ask. The small child grows a bit and now he can ask but he is simple minded – his perspective of the world is black and white. As the child continues to mature into his adolescent years, he goes through a period of rebellion, questioning the values in which he has been raised. Of course, we pray our children continue on to the final phase, to that of the wise son, someone sincerely interested and inquisitive for wisdom and knowledge – one who spends the rest of their learning, studying, and searching for answers.
There is a true story told of a great Rabbi, Rav Eisel Charif of Slonim who was looking to marry off his daughter. He of course wanted her to meet someone very learned in Torah and so he traveled to the greatest yeshiva of the time, the world famous Yeshiva of Volozhin where the best and brightest Talmudic students were enrolled. Upon his arrival he informed the head of the Yeshiva he would present an involved question on Torah to all the students and whoever could give a suitable answer would be given his daughter’s hand in marriage. Rav Eisel posed the question which quickly made its way around the yeshiva. The question was so difficult no-one could answer it right away. He therefore stipulated he would give all the yeshiva students one day to come up with an answer. The day came and went and no one came forward and so Rav Eisel got unto his couch and proceeded back home. Suddenly the couch driver heard a voice crying: “Stop, stop”. Looking behind him he saw one of the students from the yeshiva running, desperately trying to catch up with the coach. The driver began to slow down but Rav Eisel told him to keep going: “It’s too late for him to answer now” he told the driver. The couch driver pleaded with the Rabbi: “Have pity on this young man, look how he’s running with all his strength to catch up to us”. Rav Eisel relented and the driver stopped the horses. As soon as the young man caught up, the Rabbi told him: “Look, it’s too late to be considered for my daughter, the day has already passed”. “I realize that” the student responded, “But I just want to know the answer to your question. Can you tell me?” The Rabbi was so impressed with the students’ inquisitiveness and great desire to know the answer to the Torah question, he posed that he took him and brought him to meet his daughter. They eventually married and that young man became the legendary and famous Rav Yossele of Slonim, the great Slonimer Rebbe.
The Four Sons teach how much Judaism values our questions but our tradition also demands we search for answers. How much do we try to find the answers to our life’s questions? How far are we willing to go, how fast are we willing to run to learn and grow in our Judaism? Passover is a holiday that requires us to learn and observe more, inspiring us to never be content with where we are now, but to keep learning and acquiring greater knowledge and wisdom. For when we stop learning, we stop growing. Our Judaism becomes stale and Torah ceases to be the dynamic and exciting approach to life we know it to be. This is why the Hagadah records how the greatest sages of the Talmud stayed up all night discussing the story of the Exodus – for they wanted to know more. May we all follow their example and may this Passover inspire us all to recommit ourselves to learn and study more, take more classes, read more Jewish books and in doing so bring greater wisdom and insight and ultimately redemption to ourselves and our people.