Equitability & The Four Children

I think a lot about the four children every year.

As someone who works in Jewish education, this text is extremely compelling to me. First we have the contrasts between the questions and answers given to the wise and the wicked, the simple and silent. We can almost picture these faces around our table: precocious; sullen; mildly confused; completely lost. 

The Haggadah is a masterclass in youth engagement. One of the primary mitzvot of Pesach is “higadeta l’vanecha,” to teach it to our children. The Haggadah is filled with techniques for this, including the Socratic method (the four questions), humor (chad gadya), repetitive songs (dayenu), acronyms (detzach adash b’achav), and more. 

Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, a midrashic commentary, presents one of the earliest introductions of the text of the four children sometime between 100-200 CE. The Talmud Yerushalmi also shares a version, attributing it to Rav Chiyya, who lived from 180-230 CE. Either way, we are talking about a text composed around the 2nd or 3rd Century.

This text is immediately noteworthy because its approach is actually very modern — the approach of differentiated education. When we think about 2nd and 3rd Century classrooms, we probably don’t envision differentiated education. 

The mitzvah of the Pesach seder is teaching. And reading this text tells us that close to 2000 years ago, the rabbis and commentators ascertained that teaching the exodus story properly would require telling the story in different ways, according to the educational needs of each child at the table. For the wise child, this means answering his halachic question with a halachic answer. For the wicked child, it means matching his pointed question with a pointed answer. For the simple child, sharing more details of the story to answer his broad question. And for the child who does not know to ask — perhaps due to age, lack of knowledge, disability, or something else — we open up the story and provide an opportunity for this child to eventually find the questions.

I think this is actually a more profound approach than we even realize. Our days contain hundreds if not thousands of communications and interactions. Instinctively, we likely respond to people in different ways, according to their attitudes, personalities, and abilities. And if we want our interpersonal communications to be effective, that is the way things are supposed to be.

This has really important religious, communal, social, educational, and political implications. Are the models for our schools, camps, universities, shuls, and justice systems equitable? Do we meet people within these systems where they are, or do we try to provide a one-size-fits-all solution that leaves people disillusioned and unsupported?

I won’t pretend I have the answers to how to do this. I can’t claim that this is an easy or simple endeavor. But I believe the Haggadah is affirming the need for differentiation in the way we engage with others, and it’s telling us that we need to try. Even if the results aren’t what we hope for — even if, in the end, the wicked child turns their back, or the child who doesn’t know how to ask never figures it out — it’s our religious and moral responsibility to try: to look for the humanity, the needs, and the abilities of each person we engage with, and to try to structure our systems to meet them where they are.

About the Author
Ruthie creates innovative Jewish programming and supports the development of young Jewish leaders. She believes that storytelling and storysharing is the most powerful uniting force on this planet, and strives to operate spaces that embrace the diversity of the human experience. Currently, Ruthie lives on the Upper East Side with her husband Max (a semicha student at RIETS), a fluffy high-strung dog, and their very adventurous toddler.
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