My absolute favorite part of the Haggadah is the four children. I could spend all night just talking about it, looking at the different depictions of the four (Noam Zion’s A Different Night has a wonderful collection, many of which you can find online), thinking about the roles each of us takes on in relation to the Passover story.
There are so many different interpretations about the four sons. For example, the 19th-century Sefat Emet (R. Yehuida Leb Alter of Ger) taught that the four sons represent four stages of redemption. The Lubavitcher rebbe taught that the four children represent four successive generations of American immigrants; the one we really need to be concerned about is the fifth son, who is not even at our table. Some kabbalistic interpretations reverse the hierarchy, claiming that the son who does not know how to ask a question is actually spiritually closest to God, as his yearning for closeness to divinity exceeds the boundaries of language.
This year I am spending a little more time thinking through the interpretation of Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (AKA Rashbatz), a 14th century sage from Majorca. He uses the little piece of liturgy just prior (Baruch HaMakom, in which we acknowledge and bless God) as a lens for viewing the four children text:
The Haggadah text is about to continue with the interpretation of various Biblical verses relating to the obligation to tell the story of the exodus. This verse (Baruch HaMakom) serves as a blessing prior to study Torah. … The four children about whom the Haggadah speaks are all dealing with the same question: whether the world is controlled by one God or by two separate forces – one for good and one for evil. The wise child knows that God created everything and guides the world with benevolent providence. The wicked child believes there are two competing forces in the world. The naïve child asks: What is this? Why do we have a righteous person who suffers and a wicked person who prospers? This is a question for which he has no answer. The child unable to ask believes that everything in the world is random, so that no questions on the subject of God’s power are relevant.
I find it interesting that Rashbatz is willing to completely ignore the context of the Passover Seder in order to focus on an existential question. This is itself an important teaching: we cannot expect our Seder attendees to have the themes of Passover on their minds when they sit down with us. More often, they are still bringing a bit of the world they have been experiencing with them to the table.
The Seder may provide them with an opportunity to reflect on life’s meaning in general. Not everyone will be able to relate and find a redemptive, Exodus-type moment at the beginning.
If we take a closer look, we see that Rashbatz pays homage to the traditional notion of an ordered, God-centered universe by locating this belief with the wise son, and identifies the wicked son with the relatively archaic heretical belief in two powers. But Rashbatz does not discount the opinions of the last sons.
It is entirely appropriate to come to the frustrating answers of God’s powerlessness or absence in the world. Embedded in the rubric of the four children is the understanding that the question of each is appropriate, even necessary as a part of the whole, and that we should feel empowered to voice these questions, recognize them, and attempt to address them with understanding.
So too with faith development - each of us will go through different stages in being able to answer life’s big questions, such as “Where is God in the universe?” The least that we can do (and sometimes the most) is to recognize where someone is at and attempt to be present to their experience and the way they create meaning.
Written by Rabbi Josh Snyder, director of Goucher College Hillel.