An open letter to the Wise Son
I heard that you told Mommy that you were going to be able to join us for seder again this year, and we couldn’t be more thrilled. Your presence always adds so much to our discussions. Your keen insights and quick wit are always welcome. It’s always a pleasure.
The reason that I’m writing is because there is something that’s been on my mind a lot recently. I thought it might be best if I brought it up privately first and then, if you want, we could talk it over at seder. I’m a bit unsure how to bring this up, but I hope that even though these words are a bit sharp, you know they come from a place of love. I hope Mommy and I have done a good job of making sure you know how much we love and appreciate you.
I’m worried that you’ve become a bit conceited, and in that conceit, you’ve lost touch with how important your brothers are for this family too.
Son, I hope you’ll give me a moment to explain. I hope that the love I’ve showered on you in the past gives me enough credibility for you to at least hear me out.
You see, I was thinking about the question you asked last year, “What are these testimonies, statutes, and judgments that Hashem your G-d commanded you?” I know you asked the question just that way because you were trying to show me your skill in learning. I know that you wanted to point out how some mitzvot, like matzah, are like a testimony to certain historical facts. And some mitzvot are statutes handed down by the King, and we do them even if we don’t understand them (like laws of Kashrut). And we know that some mitzvot are the judgments that the Torah gave us for dealing with human interactions, like the laws of renters and damages. And I hope you know that Mommy and I appreciate your Torah knowledge so much. But we have to talk about the impact of your questions on the whole table.
This is what I was trying to explain in my answer, but it wasn’t clear to me that you understood. I know that you were probably expecting me to say, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but Hashem took us out from there.” It certainly would have answered your question. But I went with a different tack. Do you remember? I said, “After we eat the Korban Pesach you can no longer add on dessert.” Now to be sure, we talked about many of the halachot of Pesach, but that was the one I spent the most time with. Did you get my message? Just to be super clear, let me unpack it for you.
Once a person eats the Korban Pesach, the mitzvah is completed, right? So how could there be a law about AFTER you ate? You should be done! If the only thing that matters is the technical completion of the mitzvah, why does it matter what happens after? אלא מאי? Rather, it must be that it’s NOT just the technical fulfillment of the mitzvah that matters. The rules of not having dessert after the Korban is because the taste of that Korban is supposed to linger with you. The impression it makes, the taste that stays on the palate, the feelings you have after the mitzvah, are also part of the mitzvah, not just its technical fulfillment.
And that was the lesson I was trying to give you last year. Yes, you’re a budding talmid chacham, and we could not be more proud of you. Yes, the seder is supposed to be a back and forth of active learning. But what was the impact of your technical fulfillment of the mitzvah? You know that one of your brother’s connection to the family is tenuous. We can dig into the problems with his faith if you think that’s a purposeful discussion, but from my perspective, I’m happy he’s at least coming to seder. And I can’t let your conceit, holy though it is, jeopardize that. When you guide the discussion into such technical details, you can see how he shifts in his chair, like he can’t wait to run out.
When you started speaking, young Tom looked up at you, star-struck. But when he realized he wouldn’t be able to talk at your level his whole face fell. Maybe it gave him something to aspire to, I don’t know. But my heart broke when I saw that. And sweet Shane-O. It’s hard to know if it helps, but Mommy and I are trying our best to give him feelings of faith and joy at the seder. That’s the point I was trying to make. It’s not just about eating the Korban, it’s about the lingering taste of it too. It’s about how people feel after you’ve done a mitzvah. You can’t just focus on your own learning, you have to understand we’re a family and we’re all in this together. How you go about your learning, and the feelings you leave the family with, they matter, just like the lingering taste of the Korban.
Son, we love you so much. I want you to know we understand what a miracle it is to have someone like you in the family. After so much has happened to the family, after just the few of my family escaped Europe, after your mother’s family scraped their way out of poverty in America in the early 20th century, after so many of your cousins seem to have fallen off the back of the truck of Jewish history, to be able to have a scholar such as yourself, dedicated to full time Torah study at the highest level, it’s nothing less than a neis niglah, a revealed miracle. And seeing you at our table makes me grateful and proud and filled with nachas, and to be honest a little humbled that I never had the chance to achieve like you. But even still, I have to think about your brothers too.
Son, please let me close how I began. Mommy and I are so proud of you and so happy you will be with us for seder. I hope these words from my heart find their target in yours.
And from Rabbi Soskil last year and before that, please see:
An Open Letter to the Wicked Son