It is part of our tradition to discuss, to debate, and to argue. Whether it is at Torah study, when considering ethical decisions, interacting with the stranger, or finding out the truth, as Jews we must think about all issues from many different viewpoints. Moses’ view of the Ten Plagues was not the same as Aaron’s. Many Israelites probably found their slavery tolerable and found Moses and Aaron to be thorns in their side, disturbing their complacency. And Pharaoh certainly had his own viewpoint of the whole situation.
Part of our job is to make sure that each person understands the Passover story in a way they will find meaningful. One of our many traditions is the story of the four children, each of whom reacts differently to the Seder and its story. Of course, many more viewpoints are possible than these four, but let this serve as a starting place for discussing the issues raised.
Traditionally, the four children are referred to as the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the silent child. We have chosen here to bring these into a modern understanding of what “wise,” “wicked,” “simple” and “silent” might mean today, so we are re-naming these four children.
The child who seeks to gain wisdom asks: What is the meaning of these laws and traditions which the Eternal has commanded us to follow?
This child seeks knowledge because they are comfortable with memorizing and reciting. They are a learner, and a quick study. However, they have not yet learned that knowledge is not the same as wisdom, and that memorization is not the same as learning. This child must be taught not just the literal words of our observations, but the many meanings hidden behind them. Wisdom does not come only from information but from experience, so we must encourage this child to seek out meaning not just from the books and the words, but by putting those words into practice. The experience of living with strangers will enlighten this child far more than simply studying their ways from outside.
The child who rejects tradition asks: Why do you all care so much about this stupid tradition? Let the past be the past.
This child stands apart from the community. In the traditional Haggadah, this child is reprimanded sharply for his rejection of the community and his declaration of separateness by saying “why do YOU” instead of “why do WE.” However, there are many reasons why someone might feel separated from their community. If we jump to conclusions about the reason they stand apart (for example, assuming that they have chosen it), we may create a situation where they feel even more driven away, and thus estranged - a stranger. This child should be asked what is causing their separation, so that we can start a conversation to help him feel more connected again, and he should be included in the response that we were strangers (and separated from each other) in Egypt, but that in coming out of Egypt, we became a community who remembers its past and is thankful for its freedom.
The child who is naive and inexperienced asks: What is this?
This child does not yet have enough experience to understand the reasons why we tell the story of our liberation. Surely the Israelites asked Moses and Aharon, “What is this?” as they painted the lamb’s blood upon their doorposts. Surely Pharaoh’s daughter asked “What is this?” when she found Moses in his basket at the river’s edge. The question “What is this?” can open many doors, and should never be discouraged. This child should be told that questions, like strangers, are always welcome, and that their questions are part of the story we are telling about how the Eternal saw our suffering and brought us out of Egypt.
The child who cannot ask a question is silent.
We do not know why this child is silent. Like the child who rejects tradition, there could be many reasons for their silence. They may not know yet what to ask, or they may feel a question without being able to put it into words. They may also, sadly, feel that it makes no difference what they say, or that they are a stranger and must remain silent while others speak instead. It is up to us to tell this child the story of our liberation so that they may learn it and tell it to others someday. It is incumbent upon us all to be patient with this child, as well as with the questions we ourselves cannot yet put into words. This child should be told that when they are ready to ask their questions, there will be others ready to answer them.
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