I confess that I have always loved Passover more than all other holidays. This is still true despite our current Corona-related climate and the impending reality of a looming three-day holiday while in quarantine. My love for Passover does include Shemura Matzah, (the handmade specially guarded kind that some liken to cardboard) but it does not end there. The educator in me sees the divine genius in the constructs of the Seder night, as it is the most perfect master-class in lesson design. The entire night revolves around educating our children. Pages and pages fill the bookshelves of Jewish erudition answering so many questions that surround some of the particular unusual customs of the night – and all offer the same answer most frequently – ‘Why do we do that? So that the children will ask questions!’
The entire night is crafted to teach parents how to reach and teach their children. It has auditory and visual learning components as we sing together, raise items or point to the Seder plate at the center of our tables. It has kinesthetic learning as we dip our fingers in our cups, lean, and play hide-and-seek with the afikomen. Most importantly, it has differentiated instruction. Throughout the night, we see every voice represented. Our youngest stand up (we make ours stand on a chair) and we ask them to perform – and their performance is asking questions! In our school, we prepare our students to come to their tables armed with their own crafted Haggadah, filled with their own insights, questions, illustrations and charged with sharing all of it with their eager family members. The original curriculum creators of the night of Passover thought of everything – they knew that some parts would speak to different types of learners in different ways and wanted to honor each of those voices and learners.
This is most obvious in the often-discussed Four Sons. Here we specifically describe four children, present at a Seder table. Each is given a role to play, a label, and each is responded to in kind. The wise son receives his response while the wicked one, a very different response. The pure or simple son receives an innocent answer and the voice that doesn’t ask a question we prod and poke to elicit involvement. While others, many others, have spoken about these four archetypes and given them polemic importance as representative of different political or ideological movements throughout Jewish history and Jewish present, some other voices have offered a different interpretation I would like to share.
The Four Sons of Passover are not meant as labels that allow our minds to associate with the good/correct son, and disassociate from the bad/ignorant segments of our community. They are not categories of Jews – good or bad, observant or spiritual, kosher or kosher style, conservative or reform. Those types of interpretations, although they are numerous, I always found to be too two-dimensional. Those labels ring hollow to me, and too ‘surface layer’ to be the intention of the educator-artisans that planned this Seder night. Instead, I have always been drawn to what I feel is a deeper understanding of this passage, and the deeper intent of the passage’s authors. All four sons and their questions exist in every classroom, at every table, within every family, and truthfully – within each and every one of us simultaneously.
My next confession is that I am a bit of a clothes horse. I have always enjoyed fashion but I have learned, and continue to relearn, that my fashion choices need not be driven by a label brand. All too often we all see two shirts, sweaters, or suits – one with a brand name we recognize as ‘high-end’ and one without. One with a price tag five times higher than the other, and one without almost any other major discernable difference than the price and brand name tag or logo.
Labels can be poisonous to our well-being. They fuel a need to fit in and be counted within the hallowed halls of the crème-de-la-crème of society. But as fashion is fickle, this need and this method of quenching that need can be likened to an addiction. It does not end and has seemingly no limit.
As dangerous as this behavior can be to our wallets and retirement plans, it is that much more corrosive to our Jewish communal constructs. We have grown accustomed to fitting our understanding of the Jewish landscape into a grid, an excel spreadsheet with ‘if this, then that’ formulas that we associate with each label and title of each different denominational affiliation. Perhaps an even more telling metaphor, and an even sadder indictment of our current social Jewish constructs, would be an organizational flow-chart. These often-used tools within companies give employees or disgruntled customers a clear understanding of the chain of command. They depict a hierarchical structure of importance, something I do not believe I alone feel is present within our Jewish brand-name labels. Each group and each Jew holds preconceived sets of expectations of their own group and of all the other groups. Each of us sees a type of Kippah, or lack of one, synagogue affiliation, or lack of affiliation, and immediately our brains seek to file and categorize and assign a brand name we can recognize.
The poison enters when we add our own constructs of hierarchy within those assumptions. The Orthodox community is labeled unfairly as too backwards thinking, too rigid and way too ‘judgy’ of other denominations, while simultaneously often operating from a place of judgementalism. The proud Conservative or Reform Jew who regularly attends services that inspire them to connect with their Creator in a way that feels authentic to them will similarly feel judged for their choices as ‘less than’ by some, and that otherness inevitably leads to their own judgementalism. Our labels are convenient and familiar. Assumptions I hold about what the ‘other’ must be thinking about me have been with me my whole life, and they have been with you your whole life. At least, I assume so.
As teachers and as parents we walk around with these preconceived assumptions as well. We label our students and even our children to some extent. Every teacher can relate to the time-honored question of ‘why do we have to know that?’ asked with exasperation and frustration. That student might, in that moment, earn a label. Every teacher has also heard those same words uttered as a genuine question. Sometimes our students, and our children, want to express their frustration with, and lack of appreciation for, our life-lessons. Sometimes our children simply and genuinely want to better understand the meaning and rationale behind a lesson – be it algebra, a bedtime or curfew, or a Seder-night ritual. The words can be identical, but the tone is usually very different and immediately recognizable. The child has not changed, but sometimes the label has.
With a closer analysis of the text of the Four Sons from the Haggadah we see this exact scenario play out as well. It always bothered me that we take to task the Rasha, the questioner labeled as wicked, for using the word ‘you’ in his question. ‘Why do you have to do these things?’ implying that he is taking himself out of the equation. The questioner pitted at the other end of the experience, the Chacham – the Wise one, uses that word too! He literally asks ‘What are these laws and edicts that G-d commanded to all of you?’ The difference is in the intent.
How we as educators and parents answer a question will need to be malleable and shift with the intent of the questioner – because that is what the questioner needs! The sincere question needs to be met with a sincere answer that pushes the student and child to push farther and explore deeper. The sardonic and sarcastic question (I am picturing my pre-teen daughter or my teenage students) may sometimes need a hard-line answer to help that child snap out of it. The child or student who does not raise their hand to ask a question, who would prefer to let class slide by and remain quietly anonymous and unengaged, must be drawn out by the teacher and parents, for their learning journey is equally important.
But the most beautiful and crucial takeaway from the scene of the Four Sons is that all four sons sat down to the Seder together. The response of the parent/teacher is never to send someone to their room before matza-ball soup, nor is it to kick them out of class. All four questioners are engaged, directly addressed and all four stay for the whole lesson, the whole experience.
Our Jewish people have spent too long focused way too much on those labels that divide us. We think of our chosen brand of Jewish expression as Gucci and those chosen by ‘others’ as the knock-off and we turn our nose up, even if only a little, or only privately. It is convenient and at this point natural and reflexive. We need to break out of that mold. We need to focus whole-heartedly (and I really mean with our entire heart) on the myriad of aspects of our heritage and national identity that unites all aspects of our people. Each of us has all four questioners within us, we let them all out at different times. Each of those four aspects of our Jewish personalities are not only invited to the Seder table, but are expected to stay there and participate the whole time.
Growing up I remember pulpits encouraging their congregations to leave a seat empty at their Seder tables so that we had a visual reminder of the soviet Jews living under the religious oppression behind the Iron Curtain. As a young boy, this addition to the lesson plan of the night worked. It sparked my imagination and curiosity and made me seek out more information. Hauntingly, it now reminds me of a deeply disturbing teaching and call to action from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of holy and blessed memory, in his commentary to this section of the Haggadah. He chose to describe a Fifth Son:
“Unfortunately, there is, in our time of confusion and obscurity, another kind of a Jewish child: the child who is conspicuous by his absence from the Seder Service; the one who has no interest whatsoever in Torah and G‑d’s commandments… who is not even aware of the Seder, of the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent revelation at Sinai.
“This presents a grave challenge, which should command our attention long before Passover and the Seder night, for no Jewish child should be forgotten and given up. We must make every effort to save also that “lost” child, and bring the absentee to the Seder table. determined to do so, and driven by a deep sense of compassion and responsibility, we need have no fear of failure…”
As we let go of our need to focus on the labels within Jewish communal life, we will become more sensitive to our own reflexive value judgements of each other. Our current self-isolation should be an opportunity to reset our vantage point of each other. This Passover we will practice, and when we emerge from this viral struggle, I pray we will see only a fellow Jew – brother and sister, and we will, with G-d’s help, slowly cease to ‘other’ each other. We will cease leaving seat after seat empty at our Seder tables, and instead celebrate a truly joyous holiday of redemption and Jewish education the way it was meant to be!