Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik told the story of a Seder he remembered from his early childhood. Yosef Dov—who would later become the great Rabbi Soloveitchik—was just about 6 years old when he was sitting with his family on the Seder night in their hometown in Poland. They had just made the Kiddush and in walked the Rav’s grandfather, the revered Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. 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, and he walked in wearing a pot on his head. His grandson, little Yosef Dov, looked up at his grandfather and asked, “Zaide, why are you wearing a pot on your head?” Rav Chaim answered: “Because tonight, my dear grandson, is different from all other nights. Tonight, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt.” Rav Chaim then proceeded to engage the entire family, which included small children, women and older men, in a dialogue, 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, also a great sage, but with his 6-year-old grandson, his wife, children and his other 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 those assembled, and we must do things to make sure everyone is engaged—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 wise son, the rebellious son, the simple son and the child who cannot even ask. In relating to the very different questions, 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).
This same idea is echoed in the Tanchuma (an important midrashic source), which comments on the verse: “Moses spoke and God answered with a voice” (Exodus 19:19). Our Sages point out that at Mt. Sinai, when God was giving the Torah to the Jewish people, God spoke with a “voice” that Moshe could handle. Similarly, God’s “voice,” says the Tanchuma, came to each and every Jew according to his and her capacity. “The elders heard the voice according to their capacity, the young men according to theirs, the children according to their capacity, the infants according to theirs, the women, all according to their own capacity.”
In the same vein, the Haggadah has four different children, representing four different parent-child dialogues, to teach how the Torah recognizes different types of children, all with different questions. 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. 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 the dialogue.
The Haggadah is teaching us how to respond to the different kinds of questions posed by the varying types of personalities within the Jewish community. The vast majority of Jews today do not come to the Seder asking the wise son’s question, and so we must be patient, and in many cases, take the initiative and 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 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 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 into his adolescent years, he goes through a period of rebellion, questioning the values in which he has been raised. Of course, we pray our children continue on to the final phase, to that of the wise son, someone sincerely interested and inquisitive of wisdom and knowledge—one who spends the rest of their learning studying and searching for answers.
The story is told of the late and great Rabbi Yehoshua Isaac Shapira (1801-1873) who was looking to marry off his daughter. Wanting his daughter to meet a Torah scholar, Rabbi Shapira traveled to the world-famous Volozhin Yeshiva where the best and brightest Talmudic students were enrolled. Upon his arrival, he informed the head of the academy that he would present an involved Talmudic question to all the students, and whoever could give a suitable answer would be given his daughter’s hand in marriage. The day came and went, and no one came forward with an answer. The rabbi got into his coach and proceeded back home. Suddenly, the coach driver heard a voice crying, “Stop, stop.” Looking behind him, the driver saw one of the students running, desperately trying to catch up with the coach. As soon as the young man caught up, the rabbi told him: “It’s too late to be considered for my daughter, the day has already passed.” “I realize that,” the student responded, “but you never told us the answer to your question! I need to know the answer.”
The rabbi was so impressed with the student’s inquisitiveness and his desire to know that he brought the young man to meet his daughter. They eventually married and that young man became the legendary and famous Rav Yossele of Slonim—the great Slonimer Rebbe.
The Four Sons teach how much Judaism values our questions, but our tradition also demands we search for answers. For when we stop learning, we stop growing. May this Passover inspire us all to recommit ourselves to learn and study more, take more classes, read more Jewish books and in doing so bring greater wisdom and insight and ultimately the final redemption.
Rabbi Mark Wildes, known as The Urban Millennials’ rabbi, founded Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE), one of the most successful outreach and educational organizations. He is the author of “Beyond the Instant: Jewish Wisdom for Lasting Happiness in a Fast-Paced, Social Media World.” Rabbi Mark holds a BA in psychology from Yeshiva University, a JD from the Cardozo School of Law, a master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University, and was ordained from Yeshiva University where he currently teaches an outreach training seminar to rabbinic students. Rabbi Mark and his wife Jill and their children Yosef, Ezra, Judah and Avigayil live on the Upper West Side where they maintain a warm and welcoming home for all.