Four children or four faces of ourselves?

Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro is Director of Life Long Learning at United Hebrew Congregation.

By Rabbi Roxanne J.S. Shapiro

On the eve of our Passover sederim, we will sit and read from our haggadot. We will participate in blessings and retell the story of our exodus from Egypt. We will taste foods and point out their symbolism. We will give thanks.

During the course of the seder, we come to understand that the seder itself was designed to grab interest and stimulate questions. From strange items on our plates to special ways to dip our food, this different approach to our meal begs one to ask why. The Four Questions are part of our seder. Yet, even after they are asked, we read about the Four Sons (also referred to as the Four Children) so we can understand that not only may our questions evoke answers, our answers may be heard differently by different types of children. 

The background to the piece on the Four Sons comes from our ancient rabbis in the Mishnah. We are told that each of the answers provided to them comes from the Torah, although there is some debate about how they are applied. We know that Mishnah Pesachim 10:4 explains to us that “the parent teaches according to the knowledge level of the child.” Thus, it seems our rabbis created a proper response for each type/level of child.

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While on the face of the text, we understand that the wise child is wise because he has both knowledge and a positive mindset. The wicked child is called such because no matter what his knowledge level might be, he has a poor attitude.  The simple child has the interest, but not yet the knowledge. The last child does not even know to ask. But as we dig deeper, as we question more, we ask ourselves if these children are really four separate children or really all separate aspects of a single individual.

I can recall, as a child at the seder table, always hoping that the order of reading would allow me to be cast as the “wise child”. I would laugh as my brothers inevitably became the “wicked child” or the “simple child”. And, of course, in those years where I became one of the other children, I would cast off any connection to my part and my personal nature. Now, as an adult, I seek out the various parts so that I may give them each life and credit.

What is so wrong with the “wicked” or “defiant” child? Is she really wrong to ask these questions? Is it bad to ask another about what something means to them? Perhaps if she received explanation and not a challenge, she would understand how something so special to her parents or grandparents could also be meaningful to her. Is it wrong to be the “simple” child? Or is he just a child who is on the path of learning and discovery? Is it always good to be the “wise” child? Is there a chance that having too much assurance that one is right leads to the opportunity for one to not accept that he might be wrong? And for the child “who does not even know how to ask”, maybe we have not given her the opportunity to inquire.

Or, perhaps, the section of the Four Children is really a case example of a single person who responds in different ways at different times. We each may be wise about some topics and simple in regard to others. Sometimes we may not know how to ask and sometimes we may be too stubborn to want to know another’s answer. Have there been times when you have approached Passover wanting to learn all you can learn and other years when you wonder what is the purpose of the holiday? In the disparate facets of our lives, we can be all four children at once.

As we enter this time of celebration, remembrance, and recollection of our history, let us also take time to reflect on who we are. Let us accept that we can be each of the four children depending on the situation and let us ponder if that is who we want to be. Let us also take the time to ask questions and share thoughts. And let us rejoice with and appreciate all types of learners and all types of thinkers. It is this acceptance and celebration that leads us not only to true wisdom, but also to true compassion.

Chag Sameach!