Four times we recite the Hebrew word Baruch, blessed. Immediately after that we list four kinds of sons. The implication is clear. Our children may all be different but every one of them remains a blessing. Even the “wicked son” is not to be despised; he is to be treasured as someone who has not yet chosen the right path.
The Sequence of the Four Sons
The list of the four sons does not seem to follow a logical order. The two extremes, the wise and the wicked, ought to be at the ends with the other two in the center. What is the rationale for the sequence in which they are presented?
Perhaps the reason is that we follow the simple rule of respecting age. The oldest is mentioned first, the youngest last. With that as our guide, the sequence makes perfect sense. The last, the youngest, is one who does not even know enough to ask. That is the child who is hardly old enough to speak. It is followed by the simple son, the one whose limited intelligence permits them only to ask “what is this?” The one who is older still is the child of rebellious teenage years, going through a stage in which his striving for independence makes it difficult for him to accept parental values and guidance.
It is one of the universal blessings that as children come to greater maturity they find the wisdom to acknowledge that their parents are not as stupid as they came to believe when they were teenagers. In the words of Mark Twain, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
Therefore the four sons may in fact be four stages in the life of one person, stages that take us from infancy through childishness, onto rebelliousness and finally to true wisdom.
The Wise and the Wicked
The word “wise” has to do with the intellect. The word “wicked” speaks of morality. How can they possibly be used as opposites? One could speak of the wise and the foolish or of the righteous and the wicked. The wise and the wicked aren’t logical counterparts.
But perhaps they are, according to a remarkable Talmudic insight. What is the cause of sin? The Sages answer, based on an ingenious inference from a biblical text, that “A person does not sin unless overtaken by a spirit of foolishness.” Sin, more than a moral failing, is an act of stupidity. Its most powerful opponent is wisdom. The wise will choose not to be wicked. The Torah places its greatest hope for perfecting man’s character by way of study. That is the best way in which the wicked son can be transformed into a wise son.
May our understanding of these ideas and our fulfillment of these concepts insure for us the Passover holiday filled with meaning and divine blessings.
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