The Four Children

I hope you are enjoying your Passover holiday. It was very nice to have a seder together with my sister’s family while in Orlando. Passover is one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays with over 70% of American Jews participating in a seder.

For many of us, the basic tenets of the Passover holiday are: have a seder, eat matzah, and most importantly, retell the story of the exodus from Egypt and our freedom from slavery. As part of the seder itself, we recite the ten plagues, drink several glasses of wine, hide and find the afikomen, welcome Elijah, and, of course, have the youngest sing the ever important four questions. But to me, one of the most interesting aspects of the evening is the discussion of the “four sons” (let me refer to them as the four children).

The traditional Haggadah speaks of "four sons"—one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know to ask. Each of these children phrases questions about the seder in a different way.

  • The wise child tries to learn how to carry out the seder, rather than asking for someone else's understanding of its meaning.

  • The wicked child is characterized in the Haggadah as isolating him/herself from the Jewish people, standing by and watching their behavior rather than participating.

  • The simple child asks what is special about Passover and the seder.

  • And for the one who does not know to ask, it is our duty to explain and interpret for him/her.

A colleague of mine sent me an article from written by Rabbi Vicki Axe, spiritual leader of Congregation Shir Ami in Greenwich, Connecticut. I found her words and thoughts about the “four children” to be inspiring and wanted to share them with you.

Representing an ancient understanding of what we now call different learning styles, the “four children” remind us that we are commanded to teach all of our children, each according to individual ability to learn. We in turn learn from them as their need to know in their own unique way challenges us.

The wise child challenges us with scholarship and knowledge of Jewish law. We praise this love of learning, while encouraging the wise child to join heart with head in seeking knowledge.

The wicked or rebellious child challenges us in questioning our traditions and authority. Rejecting the time-honored answers, we fear losing the rebellious child, admitting that perhaps we have pushed the child away. It may not be enough to invite the rebellious child to hear our story. Perhaps we have to be ready to listen to new ideas, as well.

The simple child challenges us as we retell the story and share the joy of the customs and rituals. We take pride in opening the soul of the simple child and helping this child to embrace the ways of our people.

The child who does not know how to ask challenges us as we seek ways to kindle a lifelong passion for self-knowledge and connection to the Jewish people.

As we reflect on our seders, I wonder if the lesson we can glean today from the four children is that they represent all the kinds of people we encounter in every arena of our lives -- in our families, in the workplace, in community organizations, in the political arena, in global conversation.

I believe that every individual is at one and the same time student and teacher, guiding one another, challenging one another. Just as our tradition compels us to find ways to grow and learn with all of our children who enter the classroom of our homes, we must be equally compelled to find ways to grow and learn with all of the people who enter the classroom of our lives, those who share our style of understanding and those who challenge our style of understanding.

We declare early in the Seder, "Let all who are hungry, come and eat!" Maybe this is not just for physical sustenance; maybe we are to offer sustenance of the intellect, sustenance of the heart, sustenance of the soul for all people.

Continue to have a zissin Pesach and Shabbat shalom.



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