The Four Children Approach the Future

Haggadah Section: -- Four Children

So, first of all, the four children appear in the Jerusalem Talmud, where Rabbi Hyyia, a student of Rabbi Judah the Prince, is quoted as bringing this parable. Hyyia's text varies quite a bit from the text we know today: for one, the simple child is not "simple" but stupid. But it is Rabbis at the time of the collection of the Mishnah and Talmud who are creating this rubric. And so we proceed:

The "Wise" Child asks about the rules and commandments that govern the Seder, and receives a full explanation of the details. This child looks to the future with the rules in mind, seeking to understand how to navigate the structures that life necessitates, without wondering where the structures came from. Looking toward the future, this child is perhaps considered savvy especially given the response, which is ... simple, impersonal. What can rules give us and what can they take away? How are details and structures comforting? What did the Rabbis mean to call this child wise?  

The "Wicked" Child asks their interlocutor what Passover means to them. The implied separation of "you" from "I" in this question seems to be what incurs wrath and the declaration that this child would not have been among those saved because of their lack of collective self-identity. Do we get to be arbiters of who would have been saved and who would not? Isn't it true that we each experience Passover differently? Is gleaning information from someone in a position of authority not a way to determine what one's opinions are? Isn't it a night of questions and individual experiences? This child looks to the future, perhaps, with good boundaries and an understanding of self as unique. What do we gain by othering this child in our midst? 

The "Simple" Child looks to the future, totally baffled. What does it all mean?! What the fuck is going on? This child has an open demeanor. What's being asked isn't actually that different from the "wicked" child: the only difference is the absence of "to you." But it's clearly enough to not ping that reminder of individuality that made the Rabbis so mad with the wicked child. Instead, a question asked with less perceived ego is met with a more tolerant answer. By implying that this ritual is simply confounding - something we can probably all agree on - this child is given help and offered understanding. This child is looking for the bigger picture, unlike the "wise" child who's looking for the minutiae; and assuming they're sharing experiences with those around them, unlike the "wicked" child who's exercising boundaries.

The Child "Who Does Not Know How to Ask" is present but silent - looking to the future in a way that's totally mysterious. We might try to assume from silence: carelessness, paralysis, contempt, daydreaming, genius even. The rabbis use "this is because of what god did for me" here - it's the same othering and dividing language as we saw with the "wicked" child, who doesn't get to be included in our collective. Not super merciful? What would have happened if the Rabbis had asked this child a question? Have there been times when we've assumed something that can't be proven when we encounter someone's silence?

Some things to think about re: the children and Shmita: at a time when people are released from their debts, how can we think about releasing the stories that we tell about the people we know – including ourselves. How do we tell other people about who they are instead of approaching them with curiosity, as evolving creatures? How are the stories we tell children about themselves – or the stories others told us when we were children about who we are – limiting, or entrenched to the point where we can’t remember why we hold on to them? How can we take this opportunity of renewal to re-define our rubrics of understanding others and ourselves?

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