The Four Sons of the Passover Haggadah has been the subject of endless interpretation and commentary, and of scores of illustrated iconographic variations.

Nevertheless, in every instance the focus is always on these boys and their typologies, as if children simply arrive in this world with different personalities. The task of parents and educators is merely to “Educate each child in his own way so that when he grows old he will not stray” (Proverbs 22:6).

And yet, in the Jewish tradition, reality is — and has always been – the very opposite. We impose our idea of education on our children, and make no differentiation between them. It’s one size fits all — square peg into round hole, the consequences be damned.

Some children do excel because the shoe fits. Most are cast adrift on a curricular monorail to achieve varying degrees of failure.

But this is neither the time nor place to dwell on what can only be classified as a crime against children. The evidence is all around us, and a colossal reckoning is long overdue.

What is appropriate during this Passover season is to see how even this approach — how even the child with the most potential to succeed in the rigid formulaic education to which he is subjected — is often undermined and doomed to failure from the virtual starting gate because of the manner in which a parent or pedagogue reacts to the child’s natural curiosity.

For it makes no more sense to call a child wicked than it does to call him wise. Moreover, wicked and wise are not opposites. Indeed wicked and wise are merely the results of how children are treated, and The Four Sons of the Haggadah are the reflection and ultimately the products of how they were heard, or ignored, as children.

All the commentators note how there is virtually no difference between the question asked by the wise son and that of the wicked one. Both are expressing an initial alienation from all that is happening at the seder, and what it means “to you.” The key difference is not in what they are asking, it is in how the parent hears it.

In the first instance, the father reacts patiently and expounds to his naturally curious child. In the second case the father reacts with violent impatience. The wise father treats his child with respect, listens to him, and then explains what it is all about. Hence his son becomes wise as well. The wicked father makes short shrift of his child, smacks him in the teeth, tells him he will amount to no good, that he is not even part of the community. And this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy EVERY SINGLE TIME.

The collaboration of a wise father and his precocious child inevitably results in a balanced, happy and wise adult.

But what happens to the smart child of the wicked father? What happens to the little boy whose father prefers wrath to reason, who answers a fair question with a smack on the mouth?

I would like to suggest that the second, third and fourth sons are one and the same. Indeed all four sons are the same. Children are born with curiosity. They ask questions, often disturbing questions. Treat them with wisdom and they become wise — not necessarily righteous, but certainly wise. Treat them poorly and they become at first wicked, then simple and ultimately so ignorant they no longer can even ask a coherent question.

Because the wicked, simple and inarticulate son are one and the same, only at different stages in his life. A child is made wicked by his impatient father. He suffers through childhood and adolescence wallowing in anger and smoldering with rage.

As soon as he can he slams the door behind him and embarks on a life of total alienation from his traditions, and utter indifference to the learning and lore of his people.

Nevertheless, it is in the nature of most human beings to mellow somewhat once they outgrow the callowness of youth. As a young adult, the wicked son now becomes the simple son. He is not totally bereft of Jewish literacy, and still remembers some of the things to which he was exposed, some knowledge of Torah and traditions, some benign associations with holidays and festivals. But they hold little value, they do not play a significant role in his life, eventually tapering off to no role at all.

And finally, as an old man entering his dotage he is no longer even the simple son. The natural slippage of one’s intellectual faculties combined with the lifelong indifference that resulted from his disastrous early education reduce him to that Jew “who does not even know how to ask a question”. The best one can hope for is for the kindly aide in the nursing home to sweeten his final years with the nurturing words he never heard as a child.

JJ Gross
Jerusaelm
Motzaei Shabbat Parshat Vayikra
5 Nisan 5777 / April 1 2017