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Four Sons – What does each one say?

Pesach, the celebration of Jewish nationhood, is celebrated around the table in a family setting. The emphasis is on “sippur” – telling the story of our ascent from the family of Jacob that entered Egypt, and the nation of Israel that departed 210 years later.

The Seder meal is built around the construct of symbolism and discussion. The Haggadah itself does not relate the chronological story of yetziat mitzraim in the form of the narrative from Tanach. Instead it spans generations, concepts, tefillah and poetic song in a way that prompts us to delve into the experience of the Exodus, and in the process derive contemporary meaning.

One of my favourite sections of the Haggadah is the inclusion of the four sons. This is essentially a demonstration that each child is different and needs their own customised educational path to optimise their relationship with Judaism.

There are many wonderful interpretations of both why these sons are represented, and the distinction between what each represents. Rabbi Riskin fondly refers to a chronological or generational transition, from the wise (observant Jew), to wicked (discards his tradition) to the simple (doesn’t understand Judaism) to the one who can’t ask (so removed he doesn’t even know what to question). The analogy is extended to the fifth generation, the assimilated Jew who is not even present at the table.

This year I have been thinking about an ontological interpretation of the four sons. That is, that each of us has all four sons within us, and at different times we relate to the different character types of each. Furthermore, we can create a link between each of the son’s and their corresponding question in the Mah Nishtana.

Let’s start with the wise son, aka the Torah Scholar whose question we respond to with halachic dictum. The correlation to the Mah Nishtaha is that throughout the year we eat Matzah or bread, tonight only Matzah. We know Matzah as Lechem Oni, the poor man’s bread, and we also know it as a symbol of freedom. The learning for the wise son within us is clearly about our understanding of what true freedom really is. Lechem Oni, the bread of answers, teaches us that the freedom is not material, but rather spiritual. When we are within the paradigm of the wise son, we know and understand that freedom is about the enquiring mind, the liberty of expression, and the choices we have available to us to follow the observances of Judaism for the purposes of a living a fulfilling and meaningful life.

The Wicked Son within us does not share this luxury. His teeth are blunted. He elects not to contribute to his community, and does not find value in observing mitzvot because he does not care enough to extend the effort (of what purpose is this to me?). Judaism was proclaimed by Moshe on the basis of Naaseh viNishma, but our own apathy often precludes us from deriving an understanding of the meaning of mitzvot, as this can only come through their active performance. The corresponding question is that for the whole year we eat only vegetables, but this night they are only maror. Our lesson is twofold. Firstly, that without motivation and discipline our Judaism falters. Secondly, that we become bitter, cynical and ambivalent towards our Judaism if we turn our back on communal identification and involvement.

Our third son within takes a simplistic view of the world. To respond to this intuition we go back to basics. Sometimes it can be worthwhile to lift ourselves to a philosophic understanding of an issue by returning to its source (“because Hashem took us out of Egypt”). If we are unable to get bogged down in the complexities that are displayed by the wise son, we can still at least express gratitude for both our blessings, and our problems, understanding the latter as challenges to be overcome. Most nights we don’t dip our food, tonight we do so twice. This is an expression of royalty. The monarchs and Prime Ministers and CEO’s of the world do not get distracted by detail. They look at the bigger picture, and don’t allow their vision to be derailed by the small things that can get in the way. There are times that we need to be like this too.

The fourth son can’t ask. Maybe this is the side of us that is too overwhelmed. There are times when “we don’t know what we don’t know” and our awareness is blindsided by that which we don’t see and understand. In this instance, the discussion is initiated for us (“open his mouth”). Tonight we are reclining only. We are in the lap of luxury, oblivious to the risks and dangers that sit outside of our house, that are out there in the world around us. We are caught in the euphoria and celebration of the moment. The next paragraph of the maggid following the Mah Nishtana confirms this. It is only later, after we have feasted that we pause to recall Shafoch Chamatcha, that there are those who seek to destroy our world. Our lesson from the fourth son is that despite the threats that exist out there, we will continue to celebrate and enjoy our Judaism. We will pursue Jewish continuity not only in spite of, but even because of our bitachon. We know that those evil influences persist, but they can never succeed in vanquishing Judaism.

There is a common theme between all four stanzas of the Mah Nishtana. If you look closely you will see there is only one question, followed by four statements. That question is, what is different tonight? To expound on this, we are really asking, what is it that the Pesach seder teaches us? The answer is reflected in the unity of all the four elements we have identified within us. It is that that Judasim is not a constant. If we remain stagnant, we slide. Whether it relates to our learning (wise son), our apathy towards the performance of mitzvot (wicked son) our ability to stay focussed on the Jewish mission (simple son) or our love of Jewish celebration (the son who cannot question), our Jewish identity is dependent on active growth and development. Our only path for personal growth is through exhorting an effort to continually challenge ourselves to behave and think as Jewish people are instructed to do.

The Torah text contains four expressions of redemption, which we link to four cups of wine. This too fits our ontological profile. The first expression “I will take you out – vhotzeiti refers to the slavery being removed before Moshe led Bnei Yisrael out of Mitzraim. This is the wise son who is rewarded by the liberating mind he applies to his study, freeing him from the shackles of toiling for parnassah alone. The second redemption, ve-hitzalti, “I shall save you” is marked by the plagues Hashem inflicted on Pharoah. This is the domain of the wicked son, who is reminded of the punitive consequences of not observing the command of Hashem. Then comes the miracle of “Kriat Yam Suf that marked the third redemption “I shall redeem you” – vegaalti. Here we see the simple son, rewarded for his faith alone. The fourth redemption is vlakachti “I shall take you”, as the Jews wandered the desert towards Sinai leaving behind the permanently crushed world dominating empire of Egypt. In an immediate state of physical ecstasy but spiritual impurity we don’t know how to ask, and we are unsure of what comes next. Seven weeks later we later realise that we have journeyed to Har Sinai and witnessed Hashem’s revelation. But we have had to work hard and sacrifice much to reach that moment and fully appreciate its worth.

We have all four sons within us. Some are archetypical to our frame of mind and our responsiveness to a given situation. The ontological interpretation of the four sons requires us to relate to each of them, understanding their purpose, responding to their demand, and delivering the redemption that each of them ultimately brings to us.

Chag Kasher Vesameach

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