July 17, 2024
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Connecting With Every Son at the Seder Table

The great Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchick told the story of a Seder he remembered from when he was six years old, sitting with his family on the Seder night in their hometown in Poland. They had just made kiddush and in walks the rav’s grandfather—the revered Rav Chaim Soloveitchick—also known as Rav Chaim Brisker. One of the leading Torah authorities for the Eastern European Jewish community, Rav Chaim Brisker was a huge Torah sage and part of a dynastic rabbinic family. In walks Rav Chaim wearing a pot on his head. His grandson—little Yosef Dov—looks up at his grandfather and asks: “Zaide, why are you wearing a pot on your head?” To which Rav Chaim answered: “Because tonight, my dear grandson, is different than all other nights. Tonight, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.” He then proceeded to engage the entire family in a conversation about the story of the Exodus.

Rav Chaim did something strange to try to connect not only with his son, Rav Moshe, who was a great sage too, but also with his six-year-old grandson, his wife, children and grandchildren. Rav Chaim made certain that everyone at the table was involved in the conversation because that is the mitzvah of the Seder night—for everyone, no matter what age, background or gender—to speak about and relate to the story of the Exodus of our people. Therefore, the discussion must be tailored to all assembled and we must do things to make sure everyone’s attention is aroused, even if it means wearing a pot on our heads.

The idea of tailoring the Seder to whoever is present is most dramatically demonstrated through the famous “four sons.” The Haggadah speaks about four types of children who each ask their own question at the Seder—the wise son, the rebellious son, the simple son and the child who cannot even ask. These different children all ask different questions and receive different answers. In doing so, our Sages teach us a fundamental principle in education: “Teach your son according to his way,” (Proverbs 22:6). Based on this verse, our Sages teach that children of different dispositions need to receive different answers—even to the same question or event.

Although the wise son’s question is posed in a more sophisticated way than the simple son—this does not mean that only he receives an answer. Each asks and each receives a response. For both the wise and simple sons bring their own special strength to the dialogue and to the Jewish community. The wise son brings his profound and inquisitive mind and the simple son—his readiness and purity of faith. As the Brurei Hamidot (commentary on the Mechilta) writes: “He opposite of the wicked son is not the wise son, but the simple son. For the simple son is ready and willing to serve God in his utter simplicity and faith, to accept every aspect of the Torah, even the non-rational parts, which the rebellious son mocks. And yes, even the rebellious son receives an answer.” Even after denying the foundation of our faith, he receives an answer because he shows up. Finally, the child who knows not even to ask – for this kind of child, the Haggadah teaches “you must open,”—you, the parent or teacher, must begin a dialogue for this child who does not know even enough to pose a question.

The Haggadah is teaching us how to respond to the different kinds of questions posed by the various personalities within the Jewish community. We can no longer afford to simply provide answers for those with background and knowledge. Most Jews today do not come to the Seder asking the wise son’s question, so we must be patient and take the initiative to open the conversation. All four sons, however, are to be commended for being present. The most problematic son is the “fifth son”—a term coined by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe—the child who never showed—for Passover and much of Judaism has little or no meaning to him. We must learn how to answer questions posed by all types of Jews—for if we don’t—then, in the coming Passovers, we will find ourselves even without simple sons or children who cannot ask.

However, we must learn how to speak to all Jews for a more fundamental reason: so we can answer the questions posed by our own children. There are some who view the four sons—not as representing four different types of Jews—but as one individual Jew at different stages of his or her life. A child is born as someone who cannot even ask. The small child grows up a bit and, now, he can ask, but he is simple minded—his perspective of the world is black and white. As the child continues to mature, he goes through a period of rebellion, questioning the values in which he’s been raised. Of course, we pray our children continue to the final phase—to that of the wise son, someone sincerely interested in wisdom and knowledge—one who spends the rest of their learning searching for answers.

The “four sons” teach how much Judaism values our questions, but our tradition also demands we search for answers. How much do we try to find the answers to our life’s questions? How far are we willing to go to learn and grow in our Judaism? Passover is a holiday that requires us to learn and observe more—inspiring us to never be content with where we are now—but to keep acquiring greater knowledge and wisdom. For when we stop learning, we stop growing. Our Judaism becomes stale, and Torah ceases to be the dynamic and exciting approach to life we know it to be. This is why the Haggadah records how the greatest sages of the Talmud stayed up all night discussing the story of the Exodus—for they wanted to know more.

May we all follow their example and may this Passover inspire us all to recommit ourselves to learn and study more, take more classes and read more Jewish books and, in doing so, bring greater wisdom and insight and, ultimately, redemption to ourselves and our people.


Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.

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