The Four Children: Collective, Balanced, Communicating, and Empathetic

Haggadah Section: -- Four Children

For this section of the Haggadah, the Rabbis selected four biblical texts that featured talking to children about the exodus story. They used the texts to justify the classifications they put forth of wise/wicked/simple/unable to ask. 

The original texts offer moments of intergenerational storytelling that highlight essential ways to read and hold the exodus story - let’s read these and focus on collectivity/individuality, balance, communication, and even some intergenerational ritual grief work. 

The collective child - Nuanced learning for our merit

This pulls from Deuteronomy 6:20-25, which says: 

When, in time to come, your children ask you, “What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that our God יהוה has enjoined upon you?” … you shall say to your children, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and יהוה freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.  יהוה wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; and us [God] freed from there, in order to take us and give us the land promised on oath to our fathers. Then יהוה commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere our God יהוה, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. It will be therefore to our merit before our God יהוה to observe faithfully this whole Instruction, as [God] has commanded us.”

What's the difference between "decrees, laws, and rules"? What's the moral of this conversation? How is the individual here a part of the collective? 

The balanced child - chosenness and humility 

From Exodus 12:26:

And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to יהוה, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’ Those assembled then bowed low in homage.

Does this response even answer the child’s question? What can we do with the parallel between being chosen to be saved and bowing in homage? 

The communicating child - Naming and ritualmaking 

This comes from Exodus 13:14-16, and it’s anything but simple as the Rabbis classified: 

And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall reply, ‘It was with a mighty hand that יהוה brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, יהוה slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, the first-born of both human and beast. Therefore I sacrifice to יהוה every first boy child, but redeem every boy first-born among my children.’ “And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand יהוה freed us from Egypt.”

What the heck is going on here? How does such a specific answer come from such a general question? In describing a ritual of the first born, how is this adult modeling what happened in Egypt? The experiences of our ancestors - and us with them tonight - continue to mark the following generations on our hands and our heads. What are our markings? 


The empathetic child - observation and time travel 

The source text for this is Exodus 13:8: 

“Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of יהוה. Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory. And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what יהוה did for me when I went free from Egypt.’

Is the child the simple one here, or the explanation? What does it mean here that the explanation is happening without a question from the child? Does that silence have anything to do with the “me/I” individuality of this explanation?

Ariel Kates

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