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Four Children Need Four Stories

We set the table for the meal at the seder, but we set the stage for questions and stories that will create our vision — and our children’s vision — of the world.

In 1982, when I was stationed in Gaeta, Italy, on the staff of the Commander, U.S. Sixth Fleet, my four-year old daughter Malka was attending her first day at a Catholic pre-school. Our hope was that Malka’s school could help her learn Italian and make Italian friends outside the base. However, in our small Italian village, all schools were Catholic.

The nuns assured us that religion wouldn’t be a problem for pre-school. Malka could skip morning Mass, and the rest of the day would be filled with activities with other four-year-old children. There was one change in plans, though — but one that ended up making us even more comfortable with our decision. The nuns soon asked if we could drop Malka off after Mass, because it turned out that the other children were jealous, and wanted to skip Mass, too!

I should add that not only wasn’t Malka’s Jewishness a “problem” regarding school, it actually became a cause for pride when all her classmates — along with all the nuns! — came to our apartment building during Sukkot to see the sukka we had built on our roof! Most of the Catholic children had only read about a sukka in New Testament Bible readings, so were overjoyed to see a real-life example of the kind of hut they had learned that Jesus had used.

However, waiting for Malka’s school bus (scuolabus, a word I loved) to return that first school day, I began to wonder whether we had adequately prepared our daughter for a school run by nuns in traditional black habits. Did she even know what a nun was?

When I was young, growing up in Washington, DC, I had seen nuns in black habits — but then, as time passed, black changed to pastel, and then apparel changed to business suits (although many nuns carried some symbol of their religious orders, separate from their outside attire).

When the school bus pulled up, I could see Malka through the window, very excited, with the look she had when she couldn’t wait to share news. When the bus door opened, she jumped out and shouted to me, “Abba – Abba [Daddy, Daddy!], you’ll never believe it. All my teachers are from The Sound of Music!”

The stories we know become the prism through which we view the world: the foundation and framework for our vision. Had she grown up with anti-Catholic stories, her first encounter with nuns might have been filled with fear or hatred, not happiness and excitement, in the way stories of “the other” prepare children in so many parts of the world, including the Mid-East, to encounter strangers based on fear, anger, and even loathing.

As the old Stephen Sondheim lyric goes, from the musical Into the Woods: Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see. And learn.

An old saying teaches that “you’ve got to see it to believe it.” But the reverse is often true: “you’ve got to believe it to see it.” What we believe is often colored by the stories we’ve learned, and so is what we see — or think we see.

When Abraham told the story of one God creating the universe, the idea of history – the belief that we can learn from our past — was created. After all, if there were many gods, as so many in the ancient world believed, what happened yesterday might have no bearing on today, because we might be dealing with a different god. But with one God there could be one plan and one set of rules, so learning from the past – from yesterday, from our parents, or from the lives of our ancestors – became both possible and essential.

No wonder that the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, not only records the victories of the Jewish people, like the hieroglyphics do for the Egyptians, but also our failures, something rarely done in the records of others. However, a belief in history — learning from history — means we must record both success and failure, so that we might learn from both.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, understood the power of stories when he had Adolph Eichmann captured and publicly tried in the first televised trial in the history of television. Ben-Gurion wanted the story of the Holocaust/Shoah told, so that misperceptions could be corrected and lessons could be learned. He wanted a new generation of men and women who came of age after WWII, during a time when many of those who experienced the war or the Holocaust first-hand kept silent about them, to hear and to learn in a way that would make them remember — not with shame, but with hope for better times.

Peoples, nations, cultures, faiths: all have stories that inform their vision and help shape their thinking.

For many Americans, our national story is one that was re-envisioned and re-imagined after the Civil War, through the words of leaders like Abraham Lincoln: words so powerfully describing our nation’s new burst of freedom, and our government of the people, by the people, and for the people, that the frequently used phrase These United States would be set aside in favor of the more-straightforward, more unified The United States.

For many Christians, the world is seen through the story of death and resurrection. For many Muslims, through the image of struggle and war – at the very least, spiritual struggle and war – between Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb, the Islamic and non-Islamic “worlds.” For Jews, our vision is one of leaving the slavery of the past, wandering through the wilderness of the present, and moving toward the promised land of the future.

Significantly, while so many other peoples spoke of “the golden age of the past,” Judaism’s story put the best of times in the future. And so, whether or not Judaism and Christianity agree on the “identity” of the messiah, it is the Jewish vision that laid the groundwork for the belief in messianic times for so many people of the world.

So important is the Jewish belief in the power of stories – and in particular, our Jewish story – that four times in the Bible we are commanded to tell our story to our children, whether or not they ask to hear it. Three times in the portion Bo in Exodus/Shmot we’re taught to tell the story, twice linked to a child’s question and once not; and once in the portion Vaetchanan in Deuteronomy/Dvarim, again as a response to a question.

This four-fold repetition of the command to tell our story raised questions in the minds of the ancient rabbis, teachers who believed that nothing in the Bible was superfluous: no extra word, and not even an extra letter, could exist without meaning.

Therefore, the rabbis taught, there is a reason we are commanded to tell the story four times: because we must tell it in four different ways, because there are four different kinds of children. One size does not fit all. This teaching is the foundation for the haggadah’s four children section, traditionally referred to as the four sons.

In a way, the image of the four children is an early example of personality profiles like Myers-Briggs: a reminder that differences in individuals must drive differences in the ways we interrelate with them. Educationally, it is linked to the verse in Proverbs/Mishlei (22:6) that teaches chanoch l’naar al pi darko – teach a child according to his or her way: an approach that would eventually become the basis of today’s Montessori schools!

Based on the verses surrounding the four commands to tell our story, the haggadah’s personality profiles include:

hacham: wise
rasha: wicked or sometimes, “ill-mannered” — or perhaps confrontational? challenging? (More about this idea later.)
tam: simple or pure. Unsophisticated?
sheh-ayno yodaya lishol: one who does not know how to (or does not care to) ask – the one I will call the detached child, not engaged or involved in any way.

The haggadah’s image of four children has sometimes been explained as stages in our life as we age, overlapping (sometimes even warring) parts of our personality, or even, more metaphorically, as generational differences, as we’ve moved from “the old country” to (for those of us in the U.S.) life in America.

Of course, neither indicators like the Myers-Briggs personality types nor the haggadah’s four children should make us think that human beings – ourselves or others – easily or completely fit into any one category. Instead, we are presented with archetypes that help us understand the trait or approach that is most prominent in a person’s general attitude or during a particular exchange.

There is a danger in labeling or pigeon-holing any human being, so an approach that recognizes the designations as overlapping traits or qualities, or temporary positions — or even applying the labels to words or statements rather than to the human being behind them — is crucial. We can all understand that we have an inner child (even a rebellious inner child) and a wise teacher sharing space within our hearts — or a greater angel and a lesser angel (or as some Native Americans describe it, a noble wolf and a rabid wolf — very much like the Jewish image of a yetzer ha tov — an inclination for good, and a yetzer hara — an inclination toward evil) battling for prominence and power in terms of our humanity.

However, it’s also important to remember that “quadruples” in Judaism, sets of four, are common in terms of Jewish teaching — and often best understood based on the interplay (combinations and permutations) of two major factors or characteristics. So for example, the four species we use during Sukkot can be compared and contrasted through the characteristics of taste and smell: the etrog or citron has both, the willow has neither, the palm has taste but no smell, and the myrtle has smell but no taste. Similarly, individuals can be understood based on knowledge and good deeds: some with only the first or only the second, some with both, and some with neither.

This approach can be applied to the four types of children we have as well.

Towson University Professor Russell Jay Hendel once suggested that the two categories for the children might be knowledge and respect, but for me the best approach is head and heart: what educators might call cognitive and affective approaches to learning and teaching.

• The tam – the simple or “pure” child – represents the heart without the head. When a simple question is asked, a simple answer should suffice. This might be a child for whom pure faith is enough, and who seeks a spiritual connection, not an intellectual understanding.

• The rasha – the wicked — represents the head without the heart. When the only connection is intellectual, it is easy to become a skeptic or cynic: an outsider with no emotional commitment to give foundation to the struggle to understand, let alone embrace, what is not yet understood.

The Bible’s description of this child’s words make those words sound like a question (“what is…?”), but the verb “says” is used, not “asks.” For me, this child’s words represent so-called questions that are not questions at all: they are challenges, attacks, or put-downs. Two people can ask the same “question,” but while one’s words sound like a request for information, the other’s make our blood boil, putting us on the defensive, and making us feel we are under attack. That’s because we are.

When I worked on Holocaust remembrance materials for the military, one question that was frequently asked of me was why six million Jews should be remembered in a separate way from the millions of others who died during the war. For a serious question, there was a serious answer. But I knew that sometimes there was no question at all behind those words — just a challenge, from someone unwilling to listen to a response.

• The hacham – the wise child – combines both head and heart. This child asks for information, but as an insider, part of the family and part of the community. He or she asks about the testimonies, statutes, and laws that were commanded by “the Lord our God.”

• Finally, the sheh-ayno yodaya lishol – the detached child, the one who does not know how to ask or is not interested enough to ask – is the one with no connection, neither head nor heart. The danger is that this child represents so many of our children today: perhaps not yet completely lost, but not at all involved.

Strengthening this understanding of the fourth child as non-engaged, Professor Hendel (whom I mentioned earlier) writes that he heard the late Rabbi Dov Baer Soloveitchik give a pre-Passover lecture in March of 1971, teaching that “does not know how to ask” could also be translated as “does not care to ask.” Hendel explains that this translation might be based on the way the same verb is used in Ex 2:25, “and God saw the suffering of the Jewish people and God cared.”

The late Lubavitcher rebbe once taught there is a fifth child: the one who does not come to the seder at all. But if we understand this fourth child as detached and uninvolved, then no discussion of a fifth child is needed. However, we should understand that while the Passover Seder might be our tradition’s foremost attempt to engage our children and tell our story, we should never believe this one night is sufficient. Whether or not a child is physically present at the seder, we cannot always be sure he or she is really “with us” as the story is told that night.

In any event, dealing with children who are so apathetic that they have no interest at all in our traditions and beliefs – in our story – presents parents and the community with the challenge to find other ways to engage. But does not know how to ask can also describe an altogether different child: one who literally has never learned to ask because all past efforts have been rebuked; one who never imagines that his or her question might be heard or considered; one taught to remain silent, because he or she has nothing worthwhile to say.

Perhaps, like Abraham’s wife Sarah — about whom the midrash recounts that she died of a heart attack when she heard the news of the akedah (the binding of Isaac), learning that her husband had come so close to sacrificing their son – some individuals (or whole groups of individuals) are left out of the most important discussions and decisions of all. They are left to suffer consequences over which they had no power and no say.

In other words, some individuals are detached and apathetic because they have not yet been successfully engaged; but others are detached – bewildered, even, at the thought of asking a question — because they are so often ignored and excluded; or because they are brainwashed, battered, or numb, taught that their questions, like their thoughts, could not possibly count.

It is important to note that even the so-called wicked child is still engaged. The Broadway musical Wicked, a play about the “Wicked Witch of the West” in the Wizard of Oz, makes the point that some individuals we call wicked might be misunderstood, even ultimately representing the best in us after all, challenging the system through engagement with it. The detached child, on the other hand, may not yet be lost, but without a connection to serve as lifeline to the Jewish story, that child may ultimately drift away completely, from the Jewish people and the Jewish faith.

Four times we are commanded to tell our story to our children, to pass along the Jewish message to the next generation. It is a story that does not turn a blind eye to suffering — or to our own mistakes, misdeeds, and outright sins –but it is one that still embraces hope for the future. One lesson from our stories should be to keep faith that better times – the best of times – are yet to be. No Jew should ever be taken in by the belief that “the situation is hopeless” or “things will never change.” Our story should drive our vision and our most basic belief: that the world can change for the better, and we can be part of that change.

But we should remember the lesson of the four children: we must work to understand each individual and hear each question before we respond. Otherwise, we may be providing answers important to ourselves, not those important to our students or children.

For example, when I was in college, many Jewish teachers were touting Judaism as “the most rational” of religions, “demythologizing” it to show how reasonable it was.

However, at least partly as a result of that approach, I think, many of my contemporaries turned at least temporarily to faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism, in search of spirituality and mystery, not rationality. Perhaps, at least at that time in their lives, the questions so many young people were asking were more those of the simple child than any of the others, but their questions were not answered, and probably not even heard.

Our hope must be that all our children – every Jew – will be connected to our people and our faith with head and heart, but we should begin to teach and begin to share based on where each child and each person is now.

When I lead a seder, I ask the participants how we might discuss other issues — from the Holocaust, to racism, and perhaps today, to the Israel-Hamas war — in the traditional four different ways, to our often very different, complex, and ever-evolving children.

Jewish teaching explains the verse “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” – as opposed to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” – as a lesson that each of us must struggle with faith until that “faith relationship” becomes personal: becomes our own. We must never forget that we are part of a community, learning the lessons of the past and the stories passed down to us. But we each must wrestle like Jacob did with the angel, even to the point that it hurts or wounds us to do so, until our relationship with God, with Torah, and with Israel becomes personal, becomes uniquely ours. That faith relationship must be one that touches our minds and our hearts: our lives and our souls.

Then, through us – as individuals and as a people — we pray our stories will continue to touch, inspire, and eventually even help repair the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Resnicoff is a retired U.S. Navy Chaplain, former National Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, Special Assistant to the Secretary and Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force for Values and Vision (with the military equivalent rank of Brigadier General), and Command Chaplain for the United States European Command -- at that time, the "top chaplain" for all U.S. forces in 83 countries, spanning 13 million square miles. His Naval career began in the rivers of Vietnam followed by Naval Intelligence in Europe before rabbinical school and ordination. Part of a small group of Vietnam veterans that worked to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he delivered the closing prayer at its dedication, and personally convinced the US military to participate in the U.S. Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust. He was the first chaplain to teach at a U.S. military war college: "Faith and Force: Religion, War, and Peace," Naval War College, in Newport, RI, where he was also a frequent guest speaker at the annual “Ethics and Military Leadership” conference he helped create. His numerous military awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, and besides ordination and an honorary doctorate, his academic degrees include a masters in International Relations, and another in Strategic Studies and National Security Affairs. He delivered more prayers in congress than any other rabbi, and is the only rabbi Guest of Honor at the historic USMC Marine Barracks parade. On Oct 23, 1983, he was present in Beirut, Lebanon during the 1983 terrorist attack that took the lives of 241 American military personnel. His report of the attack and its aftermath, written at the request of the White House, was read as a keynote speech by President Ronald Reagan. Click here for text. Click here for video. Click here for more background information.
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