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The Four Mourning Children

The Four Mourning Children

Clip Featured in Paul Silk's

There they were at the Seder table, as they always are. Between the first cup and the second cup, right in the middle of the telling of the tale, they made their appearance, right on schedule. First was the wise child, the one who seems to have all the answers; sober, sensible and responsible in everything he does. “We knew the end was coming,” said the wise child. “Mom had a long life, a good life. Her time had come. We wouldn’t have wanted her to suffer. To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Next to the wise child sat the wicked child – the rasha, we call him, a word which could just as easily be translated “the angry one, the one who is rebellious, defiant, alienated.” The rashawas full of emotions that made everyone else at the table uncomfortable. “I’m furious,” he says. “I want to smash something or tear someone apart. How could my wife get cancer at her age? Young women aren’t supposed to die.” It’s no good putting your arm around therasha. He takes offense if you try to console him. Rage and resentment radiate from him like an open flame – it is hard to be close to him.

A little ways away sits the simple child, overcome by grief. Her throat aches; tears spill from her eyes; she feels lost and alone. “I miss my daddy,” she says. “I loved him. I need him.”

And over in a corner is the one too devastated to say anything at all. The unthinkable has happened to her. She’s in shock. She walks around in a kind of daze. Half the time she doesn’t know where she is, or what she’s doing. She can barely force herself to get out of bed. Sometimes she stays there all day long.

Four children at the Passover table – four human responses to the death of someone we love. One has found some peace; one, like Amitai Etzioni, is angry; one simply grieves and yearns; one, suffering unbearable loss, has nothing to say. Each year, at Pesach, we revisit them in the Haggadah. Each year, all four are invited to our Seder. All of them are welcome. All of them are honored. We don’t try to change them. We don’t try to move them along or force them to progress. We don’t try to make the other three into the wise child. They all remain themselves.

If the Seder were a lecture hall it would deliver facts and answers, resolving all doubt and confusion. If the Seder were a hospital it would dispense bandages and medicine, promising to take away pain. The Seder is neither of these. It’s a conversation. It’s a place for questions and stories, for open doors and open-ended discussions. If you come to the Seder table angry or sad or quiet nobody will force you to be different. You’re welcomed into the circle as you are. There’s hot chicken soup with matzah balls; there is singing; there are rituals and traditions; you are with family.