Aaron Starr
Rabbi, Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Instiitute

Seder Resource: A New 4 Questions, A New 4 Sons

Throughout the ages and across the lands, Jews on Passover have asked and answered the same question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” As the pandemic of covid-19 affects each of our lives in countless ways, including quarantines, illness, and loss, along with digital-only access to worship opportunities and limited supplies of kosher-for-Passover foods, we will truly remark on how this year’s Seder nights are indeed different from all other nights.

At the heart of the Passover Seder, which will take place at nightfall on April 8 and in traditional homes on April 9 as well, is an intergenerational conversation of gratitude and memory. The entire family begins to fulfill the biblical mandate to abstain from unleavened bread for a full week (Exodus 13:6-7) — in traditional homes, eight days — as well as the commandment to teach our children of what God did for us in bringing the Israelites out from under the yoke of Egyptian bondage and in leading us back to the Promised Land of Israel. As we read in the grand story of the Exodus narrative, “The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power,” and brought us to the Land of Israel (Deuteronomy 26:6-9).

Another Four Questions Asked, Another Four Questions Answered

To initiate the telling of the story from one generation to the next, and in conjunction with the ritual laid out by Exodus 12:26-27, children are taught from the youngest of ages to ask their parents the essential question of Passover, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The children then lay out four examples of how the Seder in particular and Passover in general are acts of differentiating the holiday from the other 51 weeks in the year. In this way, Jews in every generation celebrate God’s saving power, tell the central narrative of the Jewish People, and also add their own personal, family stories of loss, journeying, and gratitude. In my home, we speak of my paternal grandfather’s family journey in the early 20th century away from the pogroms and suffering of czarist Russia as well as, on my maternal grandparents’ side, our family’s survival in the Holocaust; both family journeys help us to reflect on how blessed we are now in America. My family, like most American Jewish families, then use the grand story of the Exodus narrative along with the personal stories of our family’s journey to remind ourselves that we are obligated to care for those who are in need.

Today in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, as in previous generations, we are challenged to reflect on what questions we should be asking of ourselves in order to generate the telling of our story this year. In my home, then, in addition to the traditional questions, we will ask the following of each other:

  1. What specifically do you miss from the days before physical distancing?
  2. What do you not miss from BC (before covid-19), that perhaps when things return to normal you would want to change?
  3. During this difficult time, what wisdom have you learned about the world, about life, or about yourself?
  4. What can you do now and after the turbulent waters recede, to directly and personally help someone in need?

Four Sons/Four Children for a New Era

We recognize that in order to share with our children our stories and our gratitude, we must address our children based on their individual developmental abilities and disposition. After asking the Four Questions, the Seder requires its participants to tell a tale of the Four Sons (or, Four Children), and to reflect on how the children must be taught according to their needs. In each generation and in every land, this tale too has been added upon to remain relevant as to who is (1) wise, (2) wicked, (3) simple, and (4) unable even to ask questions.

In discussing with my own children who today are wise, wicked, simple and unable even to ask, my nearly-thirteen-year old illustrated images of (1) the Wise One who is self-quarantining to keep himself and others safe; (2) the Wicked One who is hoarding food and supplies from the grocery store; (3) the Simple One is a child engaged in distance-learning from home; and (4) a politician, who does not even know what questions to ask.

My younger child, nearly ten, interpreted this year’s Four Children in a different direction: (1) the Wise One is the child who stays at home; (2) the Wicked One is the child who goes out on playdates with other kids; (3) the Simple One is the child who remains in front of his television; and (4) the small child at play by himself is the one who does not even know what questions to ask. In every land and in every time definitions change regarding who is wise, wicked, simple and who does not even know how to ask. Nevertheless, in the name of pursuing gratitude, understanding and continuity, the truth remains that each person must be educated to the story of our people and the story of our day according to the most effective methods for that particular child.

Finding Meaning and Purpose in Passover 2020

Indeed, as the consequences of the covid-19 pandemic continue to impact our society and world, Passover 2020 is entirely unprecedented. Nevertheless, by contextualizing the suffering, the sadness, and the physical separation of our current situation within the traditional rituals and forms of Jewish life, we might begin to experience gratitude and to better appreciate the wisdom and sense of responsibility inculcated by the story that Jews have told for millennia: not just responsibility to our fellow Jews, but a sense of solidarity with our fellow Americans and with the global community. And just as important, in offering our gratitude and in telling our stories, we are challenged to act to the extent that we can to help those who are in need around us.

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan and a senior rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is author of the books, "Don't Forget to Call Home: Lessons from God and Grandpa on a Life of Meaning," "Taste of Hebrew," and "Because I'm Jewish I Get to ...".
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