One of the more well-known passages in the Passover Haggadah speaks of the ‘Four Sons’, in reference to whom, the Torah enjoins us to engage with our children on the Seder Night. In quoting the verses which instruct us to engage with our children, the Haggadah highlights the different ways in which our children may ask about the Passover customs and practices, and clearly tells us to address the questions based on how they were asked and by whom.
The four sons, of course, are the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t know how to ask. These four archetypes are not to the exclusion of any others but, to the contrary, they signify the importance of recognizing, considering, and engaging with all types of people.
When we think of inclusion or accessibility, we often think of “making space for” or “providing an opportunity for” a demographic which is too often marginalized. We make the invisible visible and, if we are really good, we give voice to the silent. But do we take them seriously? How do we engage? Do we see every question as an opportunity to teach? And what about those who don’t, won’t or can’t ask? Are they also teaching opportunities?
By including the son ‘who doesn’t know how to ask’ in the line-up, there is a clear message: education, tradition, meaningful discourse, must be aware of and available to all elements of our society and, just as it is for the other three sons, adapted to the understanding of the one who doesn’t know how to ask. It is not enough to simply allow him to attend or to be complacent about his passive participation in the Seder. “At p’sach lo.” Initiate the conversation. But the Haggadah continues (just as it does for the other sons) and tells us how to initiate: Don’t offer him a question. If he hasn’t asked one, share your personal experience with him. Engage him. Try to grab his attention that he, too, may experience this exalted evening.
It is interesting to note that the ‘answer’ given to this son is precisely the same answer as the one given to the wicked son. In the case of the wicked son, however, the Haggadah tells us how to handle his attitude: “Blunt his teeth”, says the Haggadah, “for he has excluded himself from the whole [nation of Israel]”. When someone excludes themselves, we take offense. Yet when someone is naturally excluded by virtue of there inability or otherness, we are to include them. That part is pretty clear.
But now look at the answer we offer both: “Because of this, God did for me (on my behalf)” — Shemot; 13:8. In both instances, we acknowledge the otherness. In the instance of the wicked son, we blunt his teeth because he has excluded himself when he should be looking for ways to contribute to the group. At the same time, we offer an answer because we feel his pain. He did, after all, show up to the Seder. He did, after all, lodge a formal complaint and express that he feels like an outsider. So we tell him that he is correct: “Were you to have been there, you would not have been redeemed”. To experience national redemption, we have to be part of the nation. We’re not an easy people, we Jews, but we are a nation indivisible. Then we encourage the wicked son to join us in retelling the story. We acknowledge his presence and his potential even if we are troubled by his question.
Now let’s get back to the silent son; the one who doesn’t know how to ask. The Haggadah offers him the very same reply we gave to the wicked son…..but without any of the criticism. “God did for me”. But he hasn’t actively excluded himself. Why do we focus on his otherness? What did he do to get left out like that?
Perhaps we are empathizing. Perhaps we are saying: “Hey, son, I see that you are here and you might be feeling like an outsider. You might be feeling that you aren’t a worthy contributor to our nation’s story. The truth is: you may be right. God performed miracles in Egypt for everyone, but only active players actually crossed through Yam Suf. You haven’t exactly been such an active player…….[AND THEN]….would you care to join us? Want to hear more about how it all went down? Here’s how I/we feel about it….how would you have felt?”
Just as with the wicked son, we don’t allow him to remain marginalized, we take the necessary steps to include the son who doesn’t know how to ask. We engage at his level. We don’t just nod, and then quickly return to the stimulating insights of the wise son or the direct query of the plain son. We initiate the conversation with him and we don’t give up. We encourage him to contribute and, in so doing, we affirm his relevance – to himself and to us as a diverse but inclusive People.
The narrative of the four sons is one that applies well beyond the Passover Seder. It is a story of tradition handed down through generations. It is the story of fond memories and troubling ones; good students and those whose challenges become the challenges of their parents and teachers. It is the story of our national commitment to relevance and accessibility. It is a reminder that our shuls must not settle, merely, for accommodation, but strive for inclusivity in a meaningful way that challenges yet maximizes the potential of each of its constituents. It is a story which doesn’t simply accept the caustic questions of the wicked son, but also is sympathetic to the silence of those too simple to notice anything question-worthy. They, too, are part of our destiny. It is up to us to build a society which has room for and, indeed, benefits from everybody.
Chag Kasher V’Same’ach!
With thanks to Elana Goldscheider