Yonatan Cohen

Israel’s Contemporary Four Children

In the past six months, Israel bid farewell to four towering archetypal leaders. One was wise, one was rebellious, one was simple, and one did not know how to ask (but did know how to sing).

The passing of Rav Ovadia Yosef, former Member of Knesset Shulamit Aloni, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and singer/songwriter Arik Einstein mark an end to an era in Israel’s founding stages and provide an opportunity for pause and reflection.

This Pesach, as we gather for the Seder and discuss the story of our people’s miraculous exodus, using the different prisms of the Haggadah’s four children, I will also be thinking of these four contemporary figures. Much like the Haggadah’s four children, whose complexity is revealed through generations of multilayered and at times contradictory interpretations, each of these figures was blessed with shades of complexity, each shared elements with each of the others, and each had insights to gain and glean from the other. While their lives and legacies defy a simple categorization, I believe that valuable insights in our own ongoing journey towards the Promised Land can be gained by using the Haggadah’s example of framing four types of children in order to elicit greater discussion and reflection.

The Wise Child

Rav Ovadia Yosef, also known widely as Chacham Ovadia (lit. the Sage Ovadia) is easy to identify with the Haggadah’s wise son. Like the wise child who at the Seder night asks, “What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which the Lord, our God, has commanded you?” (Deut. 6, 20), Rav Ovadia was blessed with an uncanny ability to present Jewish law with great clarity, detail, precision, and authority. Indeed, Rav Ovadia was deeply revered and respected for his courageous rulings and bold Halakhic stances, marked by a profound sensitivity and a spirit of love for his fellow Jews. Rav Ovadia’s countless Halakhic works will continue to make a profound impact on our community for countless generations to come.

Still, at times, the wise child’s admirable devotion to the Law can prevent that child from fully seeing the redemptive narrative unfolding right before his or her own eyes. Deeply engaged by the legal aspects of the night, the wise child can sometimes forget to fully delve into the evening’s story, choosing ever so slightly Halakha over Haggadah.

In a biting remark in his own commentary on the Haggadah, Rav Ovadia explains why receiving the Torah would have been enough without entry to the Land of Israel, whereas entry into Israel without the Torah’s acquisition would never have sufficed. Rav Ovadia writes as follows:

“These words are directed against the secular (lit. ‘free’) pioneers who purport to build Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) without Israel’s Torah. Therefore [the Haggadah] said that the main thing is the Torah, and therefore it did not say ‘If he had brought us into Eretz Israel and not given us the Torah, it would have been enough,’ because Eretz Israel without the Torah is no better than anywhere else, and it might even be better to stay outside and not commit transgressions in Eretz Israel, which provoke the Kingin his own palace. Of them it is said, ‘Who has required this at your hand, to tread My courts?’” (Isaiah1:12). (Rav Ovadia Yosef on Dayenu, Haggadah Shel Pesach, p. 108)

Here, some of us may be taken back by the sage’s willingness to give up the miracle of Israel’s return to her land for the sake of the Torah. Some of us may even be astounded by the sage’s seeming blindness to the critical deeds of the “secular Jews” who provided the necessary infrastructure for the founding of the State. Nevertheless, and perhaps without putting aside this very sense of astonishment, we must also take pause and heed the counsel (or rebuke) of the wise one.

We must not only question, but also dare to ponder and reflect upon, a wisdom that insists that Torah need be at the very center of our people’s national life. Given our history and past, and given the richness of our traditional path, it would be unwise (even foolish) for us to become like all other nations of the world. The wise child’s rigid particularistic approach reminds us to never give up the very things that may set us apart, for these very things also make us who we are.

The Wicked Child

Shulamit Aloni, who some in Israel’s various religious camps might be tempted to characterize as the quintessential Rasha (the wicked one), and who may have viewed the title as a compliment, provides a powerful response (or retort) to the wise one. As an indefatigable voice in the Israeli Knesset from the 70s through the early 90s, a prominent feminist and human rights activist, and the founder of the leftist Meretz party, Shulamit Aloni, like the Haggadah’s wicked child, never missed an opportunity to raise the question: “What is this service to you?!”

In a scathing that appeared right before Pesach 2001, Aloni attacked Israel’s Chief Rabbinate for misconduct in the area of kosher certification. She wrote as follows:

“It is customary in Israel that every holiday has its own blessing. On Yom Kippur we say “have an easy fast,” on Purim “Happy Purim,” and on Passover “have a kosher Passover.” I wonder how much the people of Israel pay for this “kosher” holiday, and why the foods, utensils, and goods requiring the stamp of approval of the Chief Rabbinate or various rabbinical courts increase from year to year.
[…] In recent years, someone even decreed that mineral water must be kosher for Passover. Look at the water bottles and find the “kosher for Passover” stamp, and by the way, you can find them all year round, not just on Passover. The result is more livelihood for our holy clergymen.”

Towards the conclusion of the piece, Aloni sarcastically asks:

“Why don’t we give the spiritual descendants of Eli Hakohen’s sons, who took everything they could, their cut? That is the Torah of our clergy from time immemorial. If we read the words of the prophets Isaiah and Amos and their morals, you can understand the enthusiasm of the people to devote themselves to the blessings, miracles, and amulets of holy men.”

Aloni’s remark about Eli’s sons reveals her own engagement with Judaism’s holy sources. This daughter of Israel sees herself among her people’s prophets. Like the prophets Isaiah and Amos, she is deeply troubled by the corruption that may result from the marriage of religion and state.

The wicked child may appear to be the angry child, but this same child is often also a very caring child. If, for Rav Ovadia, Israel cannot exist without Torah, for Aloni, Torah cannot exist without universal morality. The indirect dialogue between the two is a modern example of the age-old schism between the sages’ particularism and the prophets’ universalism.

The Simple Child

Many would characterize prime minister Ariel Sharon as the wise child; others would cast him as the wicked child (depending on their political leanings). Some might characterize him as the child who does not know how to ask (or as a Bulldozer, one who never bothers to ask). However, for me, Sharon’s military and political life is most aptly evoked by the response given to the simple child in the Haggadah.

Of this child we read in the Haggadah: “The simple child, what does he say: ‘What is this? Thus you shall say to him: ‘With a strong hand the Lord took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves.’” (Ex. 13, 14)

This child, more than the others, is told about the sheer power and force required to deliver a people from their oppressors. It is this very power that the Haggadah both extols as necessary and at the same time characterizes as an approach that may ultimately become too simplistic.

In a speech given at Sapir College at Sderot on March 20, 2003, at the unveiling of the “Black Arrow” site to commemorate Reprisal operations of the Paratroop brigade, Prime Minister Sharon remarked:

“Our doctrine [in the original Hebrew, ‘Torah’] that there is no operation we cannot execute, already formed in the 1950s… But the spirit, the belief and adherence to the mission and their effect on the enemy – is as it was back then, and the spirit of the Paratroopers of yore is like a pillar of fire guiding the rest of the camp today… On the one hand, the reprisal operations were our hand holding the sword – the steady, professional hand, with sophistication, and adhering to the rules of morality –and all this, so that our other hand could absorb Jewish immigrants, build industry, agriculture, institutions of learning and science, and also unceasingly seek after the paths of peace.”

Sharon’s Torah (unlike that of Rav Ovadia) is literally a doctrine of power and force. For Sharon, the Exodus’ pillar of fire is ignited by the courage of soldiers fighting a war and God’s mighty hand is replaced by “our hand holding the sword.” Indeed, Sharon’s detractors and admirers would all agree that he used great force for the purpose of both war and peace.

Sadly, in both arenas, in times of war and for the sake of peace, Sharon’s ways could have benefited from wise counsel or a wicked (read: strong) rebuke. This became especially true as Israel began to move past its founding stages – from a period that many would argue called for this sort of forceful approach (and many still do) to a time of greater political nuance and complexity.

The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask

Arik Einstein, who was arguably Israel’s greatest singer and musician, represents a different path all together. In the late 70s, Einstein’s close friend and artistic collaborator, Uri Zohar, became Baal Teshuvah (a Haredi penitent, lit. “one who returned with the Answer”) as did Arik Einstein’s first wife and two daughters. Einstein was never attracted to these “wise” ways, nor was he critical in any explicit way as the wicked one could be. His response never came with the force of the sword, but always only with the sweetness of his voice and the meaning of his songs.

The sweetness of Einstein’s ballads however should never be mistaken for a lack of engagement or an inability to form a profound thought or at the very least a question. Like the child who does not know how to ask, Einstein seems to have been animated by questions about personal meaning.

We read in the Haggadah: “As for the one who does not know how to ask, you must initiate him, as it is said: “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of this that the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.’” (Ex. 13:8)

Einstein, the child who remains unmoved by religious instruction and cares not for collective responsibility, and who is certainly careless about any geopolitical situation, still seeks – through personal connection – to find his own place in the collective narrative. “What does this mean to me?” is the deeper question posed by his silence and hinted by his song.

Indeed, in one of his last songs, a song which Einstein did not write but carefully selected (as he was known to do), the singer reflects powerfully about the meaning of a personal exodus.

Arik Einstein, From Slavery to Freedom
Words: Yaakov Rotblit
Music: Yitzhak Klepter and Guy Bokati

My ability to suffer failed
I could bear no more
Enough is enough, I said
I have to go
To leave behind
The slave within
At a place where I
Shall never return

There’s nothing left to tell
The words are spent
I have nothing more to lose
But the chains
That cut and drew blood
And I am still scratched
On this night I will go forth
From slavery to freedom

And there’s something in me
Like a full moon of Nissan
That calls me to rise up
And keeps calling all the time
To go forth on a journey full of danger
For the smidgen of a chance
Of an imaginary, happy, delusional end

There really is a chance
That at the top of some mountain
I will see from a distance
Promise for the future
That might never come, yet
Even if I die along the way
On this night I will go forth
From slavery to freedom

And there’s something in me…

Here the Exodus story is void of its nationalistic or religious implications. Einstein, like the fourth child, has “nothing left to tell” (in the Hebrew, “ein mah l’hagid” is a play on the Haggada’s narrative section, the Maggid) for his “words are spent.” Still Einstein, like the other three children, is clearly immersed in the traditional narrative – the song talks about the month of Nissan (not simply April or the spring), the moon is full (it is Seder night), and he is going from slavery to freedom. His quest however is not religious or ethical, particularistic or universalistic, nor is it a quest for power or peace. Instead, Einstein’s quest is a spiritual quest for himself. Indeed, Einstein himself is the very answer to his own question. His is a quest for inner peace.

They Are All a Blessing

In an article about the Passover Haggadah, R. Haim Drukman, a figurehead in the religious nationalist camp, remarks:

“Before remembering the four sons in the Haggadah, we open by saying:

Blessed is the God, Blessed is He, Blessed [is He] that gave the Torah to the people of Israel, Blessed is He. The Torah spoke regarding four brothers…

We say “Blessed” four times, we bless the Holy One, Blessed be He four times for four sons. Every son is a blessing, including the wicked son, and this is because in their essence they are all sons–“You are sons to the Lord your God”” (Deut. 14:1) (Rabbi Haim Drukman, Lazman Hazeh, p. 98)

As Israel writes the next chapter of her existence as a sovereign State, it behooves us all (Israelis and Diaspora Jews alike, leaders and lay) to find the blessing in each of these voices.

In what ways must these four children’s questions still guide our way? In what ways must we avoid the mistaken path of their incomplete answers? When must we insist on our own people’s particularism and when must we insist upon the universal rights of others? When must the path of national salivation trump the needs of the individual, and when must we pave the way for our own personal and individual redemptions?

The Haggadah’s Maggid (narrative) section begins with the declaration: “This year, we are still here, next year, may we be in Jerusalem.” These very words ignited the prayers and dreams of Israel’s contemporary four children – may they continue to do so in our days.

This year, we are still here, next year, may we – wise and wicked, simple and silent – all be together in Jerusalem.

About the Author
Yonatan Cohen serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a thriving Orthodox community in Berkeley, CA. He is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and North America as well as a lecturer for the Wexner Foundation.
Related Topics
Related Posts