Why we need the ‘Four Sons’ more than ever

The Four Sons have long been the highlight of my Passover Seder. The Wicked Son, the Wise Son, the Simple Son, and the Son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask. We call them “sons,” the implication being they are at the table to learn, when, in reality, they are the ones teaching us. For too many of us this year, none of the “sons” will be present at our tables.

With the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, many of us are forced to celebrate Passover separated from our families and even conduct the Seder alone – if at all. Both Sukkot and Passover are holidays when we invite guests. On Sukkot, we symbolically invite the Ushpizin or guests, and on Passover, we recite, “kol dichfin yeitei viyeichol,” “everyone is invited to our homes.” It’s exactly because of this ritual void that we need the “Four Sons” to help us fill the seats at our tables. In recent weeks, as the head of education for OpenDor Media, I had the privilege to interview some of our most important Jewish voices today for our new show “Game Changers,” and each one shared an important insight that will add depth and meaning to my Seder. During this season of uncertainty and fear, here are the Four Sons I’m bringing to my Seder. Although they do not align with the Haggadah’s typology of “Wicked, Wise, Simple and Doesn’t Know How to Ask,” they are different from one another, and their impact and influence will be felt at my seder.

“First Son”: Natan Sharansky

At a time when we must remain isolated and “socially distant,” Natan Sharansky teaches us the importance of resilience. Sharansky served for nine years in the Soviet gulags, half of which were spent enduring unimaginable hardships in solitary confinement. “I understood very quickly in prison that whether or not I’d get out alive doesn’t depend on me,” he said. “But I did know that remaining a free man in prison did depend on me. Rely on things that depend on you and then fulfill them.” Sharansky used this approach to build his resilience and overcome a harsh and unjust prison term. I am taking his words to heart knowing that with so much out of our control, our Passover will be more enjoyable — we will be free—by focusing on everything we can control to improve it.

“Second Son”: Sarah Hurwitz

Sarah Hurwitz teaches us that forming one’s Jewish identity is a constant pursuit. After completing her fascinating tenure as a speechwriter for both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Hurwitz began paying much closer attention to her Jewish identity, which, she said, had basically ended after her bat mitzvah. Out of boredom, she started attending an introduction to Judaism class at her local JCC. “What I found there really blew me away,” she said. “There’s all this wisdom about what it means to be human, about how to be a good person, about how to lead a worthy life, about how to find a really deep spiritual connection.” She wrote about her journey through Judaism in her terrific book, Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There). Hurwitz’s message resonates with me, especially when our Jewish rituals and community are being tested on a global scale. Inevitably, our individual reckonings with the impact of coronavirus will affect our Jewish identities and that’s why I’m bringing Sarah to my table.

“Third Son”: Yossi Klein Halevi

Yossi Klein Halevi teaches us the value of living in paradox. Klein Halevi is one of the great Jewish thinkers of our day, and I wanted to know how the same person could author a memoir about spending his youth as a Jewish extremist in Brooklyn and then years later write an empathetic masterpiece in which he composes letters to his Palestinian neighbor about the need to share the Land of Israel. “We are living at a time when simplistic answers may be satisfying but they’re not going to help us get through,” he said. “I see the literal survival of the Jewish people as being dependent on our developing the capacity to think multi-dimensionally, so that we’re able to hold in our heads more than one idea at the same time, even if those ideas contradict each other.” Klein Halevi went on to explain that the arguments he hears from the Israeli Left — how can Israel remain a Jewish and democratic state by forcibly including millions of Palestinians? —  and the Israeli Right — how can Israel make peace with a Palestinian national movement that doesn’t accept Jews’ most basic legitimacy as indigenous people in the land? — both sound reasonable to him. Klein Halevi’s ability to live in paradox might seem confusing, but actually brings more clarity to our ever-polarizing society.

“Fourth Son”: Elon Gold

Elon Gold teaches us that part of what it means to be Jewish is to seek out humor. Gold, a standup comedian and actor, relishes in delivering the Jewish stereotype punchline. (His Christmas tree bit is a classic.) He argues that the ability to poke fun of his Jewishness is always out of the pride he feels to be part of the Chosen People. “In comedy you write what you care about, and I care about my people,” he said. In many ways, the Passover story is the beginning of Jews building a narrative that includes pride, and Gold’s commitment to his religion on a national stage perpetuates this narrative. Still, the Seder is long, and my table always needs humor to get us through it.

In recent years, the issue of the day often prompts the need to make room at the table for a Fifth Son. This year is certainly no exception.

“Fifth Son”: Bari Weiss

Bari Weiss teaches us to remember all those who tragically did not make it to our tables this year. When I spoke with the New York Times journalist, she passionately addressed all the heroes serving on the front lines, giving it their all to save lives during this harrowing pandemic. Weiss talked about how the coronavirus preys on the Jewish people’s biggest strength of gathering and connecting. She reminded us of our loved ones who we lost and all those who won’t be present at the Seder this year. Although Weiss published a book last year about anti-Semitism, her real concern at her Seder table this year is the impact of COVID-19 on the society at large. I’m bringing Bari to my table to remind me of all those we lost in recent weeks whose absence will be felt at incomplete holiday gatherings around the world.

As we get ready for Passover, who are you bringing to your table?

About the Author
Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior VP of Education at OpenDor Media (formerly Jerusalem U), a leading global media company bringing Jewish ideas, values, and stories to life through quality filmmaking and delivering them to a global audience of millions. He is also the Founder and Director of LaHaV, a spiraled curriculum and pedagogically advanced approach to Jewish education that enables teachers to collaborate across different disciplines and empowers students to find meaning in their Jewish learning. He earned his BA in History from Yeshiva University and an MA in Jewish Education from the Azrieli Graduate School, where he was a Legacy Heritage Fellow. Noam earned a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Southern California. His dissertation, entitled "Approaching Israel Education," argues for a new vision in learning about the modern State of Israel, focusing on Zionist identity development, narrative formation, and the ability to have a mature and loving relationship with Israel without sacrificing empathy.
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