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Insights into the Haggadah's Four Sons


Written by the rabbi

Dedicated to the memory of
Ezra Ben Ma'atuk Ha'Cohen

Tales from the Past?
The Passover Haggadah's wise son asks an important question: "What are the testimonies, the rules, and the ordinances that Lord our God has commanded you?" He wishes to know the Halakhah in order to study, teach, safeguard, and perform. Unfortunately, on Seder night there is not enough time to answer his question. In fact, an entire lifetime would not suffice to present him with a complete answer. Still, because leaving him empty-handed is also not an option, we teach him the last of the laws of Pesach: "One may not eat any more after the final taste of the Passover offering." This is the Haggadah's answer - the one we read on Seder Night.

Yet, if we open up the Torah to the book of Deuteronomy we find a completely different response to the wise son's question, an answer that in all truth appears to be unrelated to the question. After the son asks his father, "What are the testimonies, the rules, and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?" we expect to hear advice concerning how the boy might learn the entire Torah, its fine details and its general principles alike. The answer that the Torah provides, though, is at first surprising. It contains no lesson in Jewish law, rather, it consists of a tale from the past:

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. God brought great and terrible miracles upon Egypt, and upon Pharaoh and his entire house before our very eyes. He took us out of there in order to bring us to the land that he swore to our forefathers, and to give it to us. And God commanded us to perform all of these decrees, so that we fear the Lord our God forever, for our own good, in order that we survive as we are today.
- Deuteronomy 6:20-24

This is dumbfounding. Did not the son request to learn Torah? Why then are we commanded to tell him stories of the distant past. What's more, the objective of the Exodus from Egypt according to the above quotation is not the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The purpose of the Exodus here is: "In order to bring us to the land that he swore to our forefathers, and to give it to us." The giving of the Torah to the Jewish People becomes a mere consequence of this greater mission.
Could this really be the answer to the wise son's question?

Half an Answer to a Veiled Question

Yet, in actuality, the Torah managed to seize upon the wise son's real intention. Even if on the face of things he appears merely to want information - "What are the testimonies, the rules, and the ordinances that Lord our God has commanded you?" - in truth he is troubled by a much greater question: What is the deeper significance of these testimonies, rules, and ordinances? Why must I study, teach, safeguard, and perform so many commandments and prohibitions? Therefore, it is only fitting that the dialogue begin with the Exodus from Egypt. It was at this point in history that we became God's nation. Our purpose was to enter the land that was promised to our forefathers and to live there as God's chosen people. The gift of Torah and Mitzvoth was a logical consequence of this mission, "...for our own good... in order that we survive..." And even though the upkeep of Mitzvoth is for our own good, the Torah goes on to state that, "It is our virtue to safeguard and keep this entire mandate before God our Lord, as he commanded us." That is, even though the Mitzvoth are for our own good, it is expected that we fulfill them out of pious love for God. The wise son, believing that his purpose in life is to perform the Mitzvoth on a personal level, is asked by his father to consider the greater, national goal. The son is called upon to view his personal responsibility of fulfilling the commandments in this new light. This, then, is the answer that the Torah provides the wise son.

The answer that the Haggadah gives is much different. It does not contain any deep ideas, only the law. Ours is a Haggadah of destruction and exile. In exile it is impossible to place appropriate emphasis on the national goal. It therefore becomes necessary to emphasize the centrality of personal, individual worship of God. In this vein the sages teach that "Since the destruction of the Holy Temple the Almighty possesses no more than four cubits of Jewish law in His world." And so, on Seder Night, the son who asks a truly wise question receives only half an answer.

Four Unique Sons
"The Torah" says the Haggadah "spoke on behalf of four sons." At first glance the sons appear to be unevenly paired off. Two are very noteworthy - the wise son, because of his wisdom; the wicked son, because of his wickedness. This would appear to explain why most of the discussion on Seder Night centers around clarifying the significance of these two sons. Yet the author of the Haggadah apparently saw things differently. Each one of these four boys, from the wise son to the one who does not know how to ask, is important in his own right. The Haggadah does not present us with a wise and a wicked son on the one hand, a simple and a tongue-tied son on the other. Rather, in the words of the Haggadah, "The Torah spoke on behalf of four sons: a wise one, a wicked one, a simple one and one who is unable to ask." Each one of them is unique and distinct. Each one possesses a purpose and a value of his own. And all of them together make up the Jewish family that sits down together at the table on Seder Night.

A Simple (yet Sincere) Son
In many illustrated Haggadoth today one finds the simple son portrayed as a sort of fool, his face adorned with an appropriately imbecilic expression. If this were the case, though, that the simple son represents "the fool" of the family, it would be very difficult to understand the answer that he receives: "With a mighty hand did God take us out of Egypt." Why should these words be considered an appropriate explanation for a fool? Why should he be informed of God's forceful ways in leading the Children of Israel to freedom?

True, the simple son's question - "What is this?" - is the result of his astonishment. He sees all sorts of strange things going on before him. (Incidentally, in the Torah the question of the simple son appears immediately after the perplexing commandment to redeem or decapitate every firstling donkey.) The changes carried out on Seder Night in order to attract the attention of young children are done with the explicit intention of causing this astonishment. Yet the simple son's question is motivated by much more than mere bewilderment. In and of itself the question of the simple son is not really a question. It is more like an exclamation. It is the sort of question that does not necessarily demand an answer; rather, it is an attempted expression of amazement and wonder. All the same, it is an earnest and heartfelt question. Regarding the wicked son the Torah opens, "When your children ask you" but does not continue "...saying..." Yet when it comes to the simple son the Torah states explicitly, "When your son asks you... saying ..." This is the Torah's subtle way of indicating that he anticipates an answer from his father. In addition, the simple son does not inquire immediately upon witnessing the astonishing spectacle. His question comes some time later, as it is written, "When your son asks you later ...".

The simple son's question is by no means foolish. True, it cannot compare with the wise son's question in which one detects the first budding of genius - "What are the testimonies, the rules, and the ordinances that Lord our God has commanded you?" It does not merit - at least not in the Torah - a profound and seemingly irrelevant answer as does the wise son's. The simple son is completely straightforward. His question is the logical outgrowth of what he has witnessed, and he is prepared to receive any answer given. It is for this reason that he is the only one of the sons who receives a straightforward answer. He asks concerning the redemption of the firstling donkey, and receives a comprehensive answer:

"With a mighty hand God took us out of Egypt, the place of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, God killed all of the first-born of Egypt... therefore I sacrifice to God all male firstlings, and redeem all of the first-born of my sons"
- Exodus 13:14-15

With a mighty hand God redeemed his first-born from Egypt - the Jewish People. This is the source of the first-born's sanctity; it is also the reason for the show of power and the mighty hand that is wrought upon the firstling donkey.
Let us too strive to be simple and sincere before God, as it is written, "Be simple before the God your Lord" (Deut. 18:13).


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