by Rabbi Avi Billet
On the topic of the 4 sons, the Kli Yakar has a lengthy comment in Parshat Bo, which can be summarized with the following questions – to which I’ll provide brief answers.
1. Why does the Haggadah use the formula of 4 sons, implying a number of qualities about each? Why not just assume a childlike innocence and curiosity?
Answer. Children are not cut from the same mold. Each needs to be addressed according to how he learns. This is one of the messages of the Mishna, “that according to the way of the child is how his father should teach him.”
2. Why does the Haggadah not remain consistent, assigning the proper answers to each child as per how the questions raised are raised in the Torah?
Answer. Because the Haggadah has a very different agenda than the Torah. The Torah assumes an air of innocence in the (each?) child The Haggadah says – sure that’s ideal. But the fact remains that kids might be very different. So I might switch things around a bit, pulling from one script to use in the next.
3. The Torah sometimes has the child asking “tomorrow,” while in while in one case he is told Bayom Hahu (“on that day”) or in one sitting. Why can’t they all be the same?
Answer. Children learn differently. Some need immediate conversations. Some learn better when they’ve had a chance to process what they’ve experienced.
4. If all of these dialogues are supposedly focused on the purpose of the Seder, why don’t the questions focus on Rabban Gamliel’s bottom line obligation - a full understanding of the rules of Pesach, Matzah and Marror? Why are the questions either generic, general, or void of any content?
Answer. Because the questions are all pointing at a context which is clear – based on experience. Assuming the parent and child have had a shared experience, the child need not say much more.
With all that being said, I think we can go one step further and ask a fifth multiple-part question.
5. Why does the Torah specifically utilize the parent/child imagery? Isn’t it true that most learning takes place with a teacher or a chavrusa? Isn’t it true that there’s a limited amount of time in which children turn to their parents with questions and that most information is actually sought from a different source than from parents?
Perhaps the parent-child imagery is utilized because that is where fundamentals are ingrained.
Whether one has an amazing K-12 Jewish education or one has no K-12 Jewish education to speak of, what puts most people on the trajectory to success in Jewish living is how well the fundamentals of our lifestyle are ingrained at home. Some kids come out of school with a lot of knowledge, some think they know everything, and some are very well aware of their limitations. But the most committed Jews either emerge from committed homes or come to observance on their own, based on important values instilled in them from their own upbringing.
The parent/child method of learning is one of discovery, seeing things for the first time – being curious, wanting to understand, asking questions, willing to learn, ready to be taught, having a genuine desire to know. And this, in the realm of our Torah knowledge and our never ending Jewish education, is something we should always be blessed to have.
Kli Yakar describes 3 stages of growth through his explanation of the dialogue with the Wise Son.
1. Avdut – bitterness of Marror – the removal of the “dirt”
2. Hachnaah – the humility which is represented by Matzah.
3. Cheirut – freedom as represented by the Pesach, which is personified through serving God
What is the dirt of which we must rid ourselves?
An important principle in Judaism is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, in order to do the first half of that, one must be at peace with oneself – otherwise how would we know how to treat the other?
There is no excuse for self-loathing, unless one has a detestable character. But the very simple antidote to that detestable character is to do good deeds. “The heart is steered by one’s deeds.” One who wants to be a good person need to simply do nice things for others. It’s just a matter of (self) training.
There is an arrogance we unknowingly exhibit. We so easily see flaws in others, and not our own flaws. R Elimelekh of Lizhensk famously prayed “That each of us should see the positive qualities of others and not their flaws.” Not respecting someone else’s having been created in Tzelem Elokim (in the image of God) is pretty shmutzy. Judging a person for making different life choices is unbecoming. Calling human beings names they don’t call themselves is obnoxious childhood behavior.
What is the humility we must achieve?
The Torah’s depiction of the questions ascribed by the Haggadah to the simple son and the wise son has their conversations taking place “tomorrow.” Humility in one sense means we must be ready to wait with our confrontations until the heated moment has passed. We must train ourselves to have a tremendous amount of patience. But there is no comparison between the response one has in the moment, when passions are heated and high, and when passions have cooled.
I recently saw a great piece of advice.
When you want to tell someone off, go to your computer, compose an email that says everything you want to say, read it twice to make sure you made every point articulately, and then delete it without sending it.
The Talmud in Megillah (28a) has many examples of rabbis who were asked how they merited to live a long life. Among them, Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah speaks of never viewing himself as better than anyone else. He forgave everyone every night before he went to sleep.
Rabbi Eliezer taught (Avot 2:10) “Let your friend’s honor be more beloved to you than your own honor.” This is not just a slogan. It is the theme of life.
One should think, “I’m not a big deal. Whatever honor I think I deserve should be given by me to the other person. And that other person should ideally be thinking and living the same way. But it’s not about me. It’s never about me.”
The connection to freedom the Kli Yakar raised was channeled through an appreciation of the role God plays in our lives.
“I have God before me always.” “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.” “For me, closeness to God is good.” What do these verses from Psalms and Song of Songs mean?
We can love Him all we want. We can really get into our davening, and always behave in shul and be the most humble and the most efficacious, and the greatest Torah learners.
But the real way we get closest to Him is through imitating Him. “Just as He is merciful, you are to be merciful.”
The Talmud passage in Megillah mentioned above gives many examples of those who merited long life because of their tremendous qualities, character traits, and care for their fellow man. God blessed them with long life because they were humble, subservient, respectful, never took benefit from someone else’s downfall, or even delighted in someone else’s failure.
Pesach, Matzah and Marror are meant to teach us what kinds of behaviors we don’t want in our lives (Marror), what kinds of behaviors we do want (Matzah), and what kinds of behaviors we can train ourselves to have (Pesach) that allow us to be the most gratified Jews in the service of God, who earn honor and respect because we give honor and respect, and who modestly fulfill the verse from Micah “to walk humbly with your God.”