In the mid- 1990’s there was a survey conducted by the American Jewish Almanac, regarding observance of the Jewish holidays. It was found that 84% of respondents observed some form of Passover Seder; that’s more than those that fast on Yom Kippur, that hear the shofar on Rosh Hashana, that light candles on Chanuka. The obvious question to be asked is what is it about the festival of Pesach that makes it such a popularly commemorated holiday? What inherent messages might we find within the structure of the Seder itself that might speak to this apparent statistical anomaly?
There are many interesting perspectives and insights into the texts and symbolic foods associated with the Passover Seder, but one of the most interesting sections of the evening’s dialogue and various rituals, is the discussion regarding the ‘Four Children.’
The opening paragraph of this section of the Magid (telling of the Passover story...) contains an interesting turn of phrase. We read:
“Kineged arba vanim dibra Torah, echad chacham, v’echad rasha, echad tam, v’echad sh’eino yodea lishol...”
“Kineged four children the Torah speaks, one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask...”
The word kineged in this context is often translated as regarding, or as referring to. The Slonimer Rebbe of blessed memory, explained that the word kineged is actually more accurately translated to mean opposing or in contrast to. The text is telling us that the Torah speaks in contrast to many different opinions and personalities, as if to suggest that the Torah has a relevant response to diverse challenges, questions and perspectives. The Torah has a relevant eternal message for each of us, no matter our individual perspective.
We see this interpretation clearly depicted in the subsequent paragraphs describing each of the four children. There are many profound lessons and interesting themes alluded to in these few sentences. One challenging point is that one of the children is referred to as a rasha-literally a wicked or despicable individual. This is a very strong term, much harsher than many of the familiar translations-(the contrary child, the mischievous child, etc.) connote. What is the significance of the use of the term rasha? How is it that one of the children is labeled as wicked, yet the other extreme, a tzadik, a righteous individual is not represented as being present at the Seder, rather a wise child, a wicked child, a simple child and a child that does not know how to ask?
Perhaps we might take a moment to explore and accurately define the term tzadik, before we can determine why a tzadik, is seemingly omitted from this cast of characters. There is an interesting teaching in the Mishna (Oral Tradition), the first entry in the Tenth Chapter of the Tractate Sanhedrin. There we read:
“Kol Yisrael yesh lahem chelek L’olam Habaa, sheneemar, ‘ v’ameich kulam tzadikim...”
This is classically translated as “All of Israel has a place in the World to Come, as it is written- ‘And your nation are all righteous...’”
It’s interesting to note that the letter lamed, used as a prefix in the word, L’olam, literally means to or into. The Slonimer Rebbe, of blessed memory, clarified this teaching to mean that there are many different pathways, different portions which can lead us to the world to come. Each member of Israel has their own unique pathway, their own unique set of merits that can secure them a place in the world to come. According to the Rebbe, there are many different paths to goodness, different types of righteous individuals.
With this perspective in mind, let’s now re-visit our four children of the Seder. There are many pathways to righteousness. One pathway is through Torah scholarship. A true Torah sage personifies not only wisdom, but piety. Thus the chacham, the wise child, could potentially represent our missing tzadik.
There is also a tradition that in each generation there are 36 hidden tzadikim, 36 righteous individuals who quietly, humbly and privately go about making the world a better place. These 36 hidden righteous ones are not from among the great scholars or public leaders, rather simple, humble individuals that quietly leave a lasting imprint upon all those who are fortunate to come in contact with them. Perhaps our tam, our simple child, personifies such an individual, not, as it would appear, someone who is limited in their intellectual achievements, rather someone who quietly contributes to the good of mankind, in simple humility. So perhaps, the tam too could represent our missing tzadik.
Another sign of piety is the capacity to remain particularly careful with the mode in which we communicate and interact with others. All too often, people find themselves asking cynical, inappropriate or condescending questions. Perhaps the she’eino yodea lishol, is not the child who does not know how to form a question to be asked, rather the child who does not know how to ask the types of challenging questions which could insult or embarrass another human being. This child is not immature, rather, the most mature, a child who cannot bring himself to impugn the status or reputation of another person. Perhaps it is this child who personifies the highest level of righteousness.
Ok, so maybe each of these three children represents a certain profile that could be categorized as being a tzadik. But that still leaves us with a lingering question. What is the rationale behind the harsh label used to depict the remaining child, the rasha, the wicked child? How could our Sages have used such a harsh label in their depiction of a child?
There is a beautiful custom attributed to the Chasidic Master Rabbi Mendel of Rimanov (as cited in the important work Eim Habanim Semeicha, written by Rabbi Yissacher Shlomo Teichtel). When it came to the recitation of this section of the Hagada, the Rebbe of Rimanov refused to refer to the second of these children as the rasha. In fact, tradition has it that the Rebbe actually crossed out the word rasha in his text, and replaced it with these two words written in the column of the page-bein hasheini; literally the second child, or the different child, the child with a different perspective than all the others.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, taught a similar idea, based on the actual Hagada text. Included in the response to the rasha, is the instruction: ‘hakeh et shinav...’literally, ‘strike out, push forth his teeth...’ Many interpret this to mean that we hold nothing back; we are to be firm and strong in our reply to this child. However Rabbi Carlebach offered a slightly more creative interpretation. Hakeh et shinav, not push forth his teeth, rather push forth the shin, the middle letter of the three letter word rasha. When we remove the middle letter shin from the word rasha, we are left with the two outer letters reish and ayin, which together spell the word ra, bad or evil.
Rabbi Carlebach taught, hakeh et shinav, means push forth his shin, bring out his inner self, so we’re left to recognize that this child is only outwardly ra, his outward appearance is wicked, but his essence is personified by the letter shin. The letter shin, is comprised of three stems, which Rabbi Carlebach suggests, represent Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are thus instructed, when that challenging, outwardly “bad” child is present at the Seder- find a way to bring forth his essence, find a way to reconnect this child to the relevance of the very message of Pesach, the incredible gift of Freedom, and the enrichment that Torah can bring to each of our lives.
Another interesting comparison and contrast to be drawn between the scripted dialogue regarding the chacham, wise child, and the tam, simple child is the following.
The wise child asks: “What are these testimonies, statutes and laws...?” This child is asking about the specific details. He is an advanced, more sophisticated intellectual, and as such, wishes to focus on the various specific legal requirements of the Pesach experience.
Our scripted response as depicted in the Hagada: “Instruct him in the laws of the Passover sacrifice, teaching him that no additional food may be consumed following the completion of the Paschal lamb.”
The chacham asks about the details, and our scripted reply is to talk about these specific legalities.
The simple son asks a basic, more fundamental question. “What is this?” As if to say, what’s this all about?
And our scripted reply: “With a mighty hand did G-d bring us forth from Egypt...”
The tam, asks for the fundamental underlying rationale behind all that we are recalling at the Seder, and our response is to instruct him in the very basic synopsis, that we are recalling how G- d brought forth the Jewish people from Egypt.
The Jerusalem Talmud records a slight variation in its version of the Four Children. In the Jerusalem Talmud, the response to the chacham, about the detailed legal minutiae, is switched with that of the tam, to remind the child that G-d took us out of Egypt.
I believe this subtle difference actually has a profound message, which once again speaks to the many diverse lessons contained in this section of the Seder. The Sages are teaching us that as educators we cannot forget to re-iterate and clarify the fundamentals, even for those students who seem advanced and focused on the specific more complicated details. One cannot lose sight of what all the detail is meant to inspire us to recall.
So too, in sharing the beauty of Torah with those who are less advanced in their studies, who ask more fundamental questions; educators need to not only answer these fundamental questions, but also find creative ways to introduce those less advanced students to the relevant, sophisticated and enriching value that Torah, in all its specific detail, can bring to each of our lives.
The Four Children, and really the entire Seder experience is full of symbolism. Essentially we are meant to realize that throughout our history there have always been different pathways to finding meaning and growth within our tradition, that even those that seem furthest removed can also find that inspiration which is alive innate within each of our hearts, and that each of us, no matter where we are physically, professionally, or emotionally, can find true freedom- freedom to really bring forth our inner self through the eternal relevance of Torah.
May each of us be blessed to truly celebrate the beauty that is Freedom, and may this be the year that brings us to see the redemption that the Jewish People have longed for ever since that very first Passover as we left Egypt.
Chag Sameach...Rabbi Sam Shor