Thursday, March 27, 2008

Wine, Seder and Secrets

A drop of Shabbat kiddush wine from mother’s fingertip might be a first taste. The four cups at the Seder might be a second and standing under the chuppa might be a third. Memorable Jewish wine-moments thread their way through our lives. For Jews, wine has significance beyond fine bouquets and good years. It is a substance whose subtlety flavors our rituals, life cycle events and holy days. I wonder about the nature of wine and why it is so essential to our practices. Why is it that the Four Cups of wine are at the very core of the Pesach Seder – with liturgy and rituals organized around their being poured, blessed and sipped?
Wine presents early and often in the Torah, Midrash and Talmud. The paradox of wine; it is at once the quintessential primeval fruit of the vine tasted by the first humans, the source of Noah’s drunkenness, the sacred libation offered on the altar of The Almighty, and simply the substance that gladdens the heart of man. Clearly it has a story to tell.
Midrash identifies the fruit of Eden with grapes and the vineyard planted by Noah as having floated forth out of Eden. Two tales of human weakness linked to the vine. But there is more. Another early episode involving exile and new-world building centers again on wine. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot inebriated by wine commits incest. Human failing and the state of drunkenness seem to go together. Wine has the power to deviate the behavior of people.
Following the abrupt death of two sons of Aaron, priests are commanded to abstain from wine when serving in the sanctuary. Fittingly, the nazirite who is attempting to embrace the most scrupulously exemplary behavior is commanded to refrain from eating or drinking grape products. Wine is dangerous, those who pursue the holy, hold back.
Where then is the nobility of wine? Wherefrom its crown like appearance at our weekly Shabbat table? Yes, as a libation it too joins other offerings in the sanctuary, holy sacrifices for The Almighty. But there must be more. The subtleties and delicacies of wine emerge in the writings ascribed to David and to Solomon. Wine makes life merry, wine cheers the heart, and lover’s mouth is like the choicest wine.
This ethereal quality of wine leads Rabbi Samuel ben Nahmani of the Talmud to proclaim that a song of praise is sung only over wine. As priests would sing when the libation is offered, we too offer praise to the Almighty with wine, Shabbat kiddush, blessings at weddings, circumcisions and the four cups of wine at the seder.
Those four cups, they have an order to them, a seder. The first cup launches the dramatic cathartic evening with the sacred kiddush. The second one is in hand as we tell the story of the exodus. After the meal a third cup is poured as we offer thanks to The Almighty Almighty for our food and finally the fourth cup is raised in praise of The Almighty, hallel.
The practice of drinking four cups of wine at the seder is based on these words of The Almighty to Moshe in Egypt, “Therefore say to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you from their slavery, and I will redeem you with a outstretched arm, and with great judgments; And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a the Almighty;” A midrash in Exodus Rabbah notices four expressions of redemption:
I will bring you out, I will deliver you, I will redeem you and I will take you.
The Sages accordingly ordained four cups to be drunk on the eve of Passover to correspond with these four expressions. They saw in this action the fulfillment of the verse in Psalms, “I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.”
Thinking about the expressions of redemption we begin to appreciate that they are no simple arbitrary words chosen randomly but rather reflect a progression of freedom; the slow unraveling of the bondage which brings the Israelites closer to the experience the ultimate, being taken in and bound to the Almighty. Wine is selected to commemorate this particular aspect of the redemption. According to Rabbi Judah Leove, the Maharal of Prague there is great depth and much of the esoteric involved in the four cups of wine.
Wine and secrets go together, he tells us in his haggadah. The numeric value of wine in Hebrew is equal to the word secret and as the Talmud says, drink wine, and secrets are revealed. As for the elixir itself, it is secretly stored away in the grape. It is the intoxicating nature of wine that indicates its special properties. Through wine the mystery of the exodus is told.
The cups of redemption tell the tale of a people enslaved and then elevated to great spiritual heights. It is a people that sheds its enslavement but preserves its experience, reliving each year and together proclaiming, we were once slaves to Pharaoh but now The Almighty has brought us close to Him.
Four cups of wine is enough to take the edge off the pain of years of persecution but not too much to relegate us to the unreality of irresponsibility. We take our experiences as slaves and use it to fashion a society based on morals and ethics. We move closer to our Creator and become for Him, a kingdom of priests and a nation of the holy.
What is the secret that emerges about the Exodus? Each family probably has its own moment. In our home it is comes very late at night when the Seder is already over. The haggadah is taken again in hand together with the Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs. It is chanted out loud as the dishes are being done. It is the scroll that tells the story of intimacy and love, the great romance of the Bible – the love between The Almighty and the Jewish people. It was in the wee hours of that Pesach night long ago that that relationship began. A battered people scurried out of the only home they had ever known with hearts full of hopes dreams and faith in the good things to come.
Jewish wine moments are lofty and not inebriating; they are the moderation of four cups and the intimacy of home. They reflect the joy of chuppah and the triumph of redemption, the weave their way through our life, l’chaim.

Matzo Matters!

Maybe now in the rare quiet moments before the holiday it might be appropriate to explore this matter of matzo. For starters, what’s the matter with matzo? Lots. Even one of its names hints to a problem. Matzo is called lechem oni by the Torah and by the Haggadah. It is a phrase that seems straightforward - lechem oni, bread of our affliction. The source is a verse which commands, “eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly, so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.” Devarim 16:3.
Bread of affliction, sounds not quite appetizing. Very little is simple or one dimensional in Torah and lechem oni is no exception. What does “poor bread” mean? What makes matzo, bread of affliction, lechem oni? The ingredients? The ancient consumers? The occasion of its eating? The method of its cooking? Its appearance? Maybe the mode of consumption? Or even the effect of its eating? Each of these categories are possibilities cited on pages of Torah, Talmud and the Haggadah itself. Why is matzo lechem oni? And why does it matter?
Here are some answers. A poor person eats broken pieces of bread, never a whole. Who knows if there will be more? We break our matzo in half and put a piece away for later, afikoman. Matzo is bread for the poor. Two ingredients only, flour and water. No salt, no sugar, no oil. It is poor bread, not rich. Our ancestors had to rush to bake their bread in Egypt, the taskmasters gave them no rest. We bake our matzo speedily to prevent it from rising. Our ancestors had little time the night they were leaving-they grabbed their unleavened bread and ran out. We don’t allow our dough the time to rise. Matzo is flat, very humble-a poor appearance if you will. Lechem oni? Poor indeed is the one who consumes it for they will suffer in its digestion. It is poor bread.
An alternate translation of the word on, is from the root to answer. We recite words over the matzo and answer questions concerning it. This is the bread of many words. There is a lot to say about matzo, it matters.
Truth is multifaceted and each of these answers woven together form a picture consistent with the verse. We eat matzo, lechem oni in order to recall the day we departed from Egypt. We have a lot to remember concerning that day. The rush, the panic, our deprived lives till then and the glory of our redemption. Most of all we are enjoined to remember the pain of being a slave. The pain of not being in control of our time and space, the pain of poverty and the constraints of spirit.
It is odd that the verse tells us to eat this bread of distress on Pesach night in order to remember the exodus all the days of our life. How can the eating of matzo once a year provide us with the memory of redemption for a whole year? Perhaps we should have been enjoined to eat matzo every day of our lives? Lechem oni each day.
Of course not. That is the very point. To eat poor bread every day would be to recreate our pain and poverty each day - we cannot thrive that way. To lead a life of Torah we need to move on, to lead lives of richness and with true appreciation of this world. But on Seder night we eat our lechem oni and we concentrate on its complex message for its taste must last the whole year long. Eating matzo matters.

Orange on the Seder Plate?

On one hand the placing of the orange on the Seder Plate arose as a way of making an important statement, “all Jews have a place at the table.” Miriam’s Cup filled with water tells the story of her song, her well and her role in the Exodus. Both of these are important nuances and messages for Seder night. However, on the other hand my first reaction is to recoil at a practice that changes the essential “look” of the traditional Seder Plate or Seder table. I guess this is an instance where my feminism collides with my deep sense of tradition. At Pesach time I am very attached to the notion that the table and the traditions continue to look the same. But then again I may be the wrong person to ask; I still use my grandmother’s pots, my Mother’s dishes, and make gefilte fish from scratch.

But saying this, I need to emphasize that I am very much in favor of the idea that the telling of the story of the Exodus must include the telling of the story of the women of the Exodus. The question is, how do we accomplish this in the most effective yet seamless way? I think the first step may be to notice what is on the Seder table and appreciate its connection to the female role in the Exodus. You will be surprised when you realize that the critical elements are already on the table. The question is, do we know what they are and do we know the narrative that goes with them? Our first step is to catch up on the very considerable role that women played in the Exodus and to learn how to blend it in to our reading of the Haggadah.

On Seder night our story is told using a text together with symbolic foods. The text, though lots of folks out there think it is a long drawn out endless series of non-connected paragraphs, is really a very well constructed ordered terse short story that is infinitely elastic. It is our job to enhance the brief paragraphs with additional commentary and broaden it with probing questions and answers. It is our role as we partake in the traditional foods to offer the rationales for the foods and to tease out all of the subtleties embedded in them. Here are some suggestions for blending the woman‘s story into your Seder.

First take out a Haggadah. Right after the Four Questions are asked, an answer is offered. The children have asked essentially one question, Why is this night different from all other nights. They then provide four examples for their question. The question reflects the children’s wonderment about the nature of Seder night. Are we happy tonight or sad? We are eating matzo and bitter herbs, that feel sad. But we are leaning and dipping that feels happy and celebratory. The question is why this night is different from other holidays where the mood is clear; sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes serious. Tonight we seem to be getting mixed messages, happy and sad. The answer is we were slaves in Egypt but God redeemed us. It is a bittersweet mood we are in; we remember the slavery with sadness but we are joyously grateful for our freedom.

As this paragraph is read take the opportunity to ask the question; how did the slavery come about? Prepare the answer by studying the first chapter of Exodus. Notice the three stages that unfolded during Pharaoh’s final solution.

Step one was the hard labor of slavery, step two was the attempt to have the midwives murder the baby boys and the final step was the outright enlisting of all Egyptians in the elimination of the male babies. Each of these steps involves a deeply significant role of women. Now is the time to tell these stories.

As the Israelites were enslaved in step one of the process, the Midrash tell us that the men were separated from the women, hence Pharaoh’s hope that the hard labor would lead to a decrease in the population. The women took matters into their own hands. They went out to their men, out to fields under the fruit trees. There they conceived and there they birthed their babies. Point to the charoseth, the fruit in that delicious dish reminds us of those very fruit trees beneath which the children of Israel grew to be a mighty people.

In the second step of Pharaoh’s plan the midwives, identified in the Midrash as Miriam and her mother, take a dramatic step in the history of our people. They stand up to Pharaoh; their fear of God prevents them from following orders. Remind those around the table that according to the Rabbi Judah Leove, the Maharal, the four cups of wine remind us of the four matriarchs. Talk about the strength and the unique courage displayed by women as you drink the four cups.

Finally, the last step in the plan leads to the hiding of Moses by his mother, the vigilant watching of Miriam by the water and the courageous act of salvation by the righteous gentile, Pharaoh’s daughter. It is through women that Moses is saved and through women that the redemption is ultimately realized.

Ironically, Moses’ name does not appear in the Haggadah; Moses who challenges Pharaoh, who brings about the ten plagues, who leads the people across the sea. There is no mention of Moses in the Haggadah. This radical absence is to ensure that our people do not deify a human being. The role of Moses is downplayed. No human is remembered as the rescuer.

There may be a very powerful lesson here. Seder night is not about a competition between men or women. It is not about who has the power. The Seder is about our people’s unique relationship with God Almighty; God who interrupted history to take an embittered people out of slavery. Though we tell the story of women and of men, let us remember that the real story is about the Divine and our gratitude for being redeemed.

Charoset: Fruit of Desire

Here’s a neat segue from Purim to Pesach from Esther to Miriam involving the allure of women, beautiful and enticing women, righteous and holy women. A woman of valor in Jewish parlance is an elegant blend of both. Tradition never conceals the strength of an attractive woman. It is the seductive nature of Esther’s beauty and personality which saves her people. She faithfully follows in the path paved gently by the noble take-control footsteps of Tamar, of Ruth and of a whole generation of women enslaved in Egypt. It is a path of righteousness and realism. It is a path of feminism and femininity. It is our path.
The question is, does this path lead to the Seder table? This mysterious allure may seem distant, elusive and to not quite fit as we gather around the Seder table. We mothers, wives, sisters and daughters still reeling from exhaustive Pre-Pesach preparations are not necessarily thinking passion. But yet, that is an undercurrent theme present even at the Pesach table. You may have blinked at Sunday School and missed it. But I assure it is there. Take a look at the Seder Plate. It stares right up at us. Not the horseradish or the shank bone - but the sweet charoset; the single item on the plate to which women over the centuries have leant their sensual talents to creating and producing. And for good reason, that charoset is no simple mortar wannabe. There is far more than the obvious here.
For me one of the delights of the Seder phenomenon is the yin yangness of so much of the symbols. The motif of the night is very much the blending of opposites. We remember slavery and redemption. We try to recreate the bitterness of bondage along with the recollection of the sweetness of freedom. The matsah is the paradox representing both. This is the bread of our affliction, we chant. Later we declare, this matsah which we eat is to recall the quick departure from Egypt. Slavery and redemption with sentiments of both despair and exhilaration in one mouthful. That is the beauty of matsah, the beauty of Pesach and the beauty of life. Nothing is simple and the layering of our sometimes incongruous emotions woven together is what makes us human.
The Israelites in forced labor are compelled to manufacture the bricks with which they are then forced to build. Is it not odd that the substance representing these bricks of persecution and mortar of torture is deliciously sweet? That it, more than an other item on the Seder plate is object of the creativity and imagination of the Jewish woman from Morocco to Tunisia? This very redolent ingredient of the Seder Plate tells a particularly bittersweet tale; a story of mirrors, desire, and fruit trees. It is a legend that reflects the enigmatic riddle of impulses, instincts and survival.
Pharoh’s final solution separated men from women. The motive was to limit the procreation of the Israelites. Exhaustive labor in the fields effectively squelched the desire of the male slaves. What did the daughters of Israel do? The Midrash tells us that they prepared food and wine for their husbands, made themselves beautiful and went out into the fields. There they took out mirrors, teased their husbands and aroused their desire. They awakened the ardor of their beleaguered men, were fruitful and multiplied and produced a generation that became exceedingly mighty. From the bitter comes the sweet. The slavery was bitter. The holy beautiful daughters of Israel are sweet. And the children that became the hosts of Israelites are most assuredly sweet.
How is this remembered at the seder table? Rabbi Samuel the son of Meir in his commentary on the Talmud in Tracate Pesachim 115b writes that charoseth is made from fruit in order to recall the apple. That apple would be the fruit later referred to in the Song of Songs 8:5 “I roused thee under the apple tree: there thy mother was in travail with thee: there she who bore thee was in travail.” Yes, the charoseth represents the hardship of labor but can’t help but also recall the transcendent fashion with which Jewish women rose above their dejected circumstances. They recognized that their allure could arouse their mates and in turn guarantee a Jewish future. Not unlike Tamar, Ruth and Esther.
No prop on the Jewish stage goes forgotten. And therefore we must ask, what about the mirrors? Were they never to be heard from? Objects with such innocent charm cannot simply evaporate. They need to take their rightful place among the souvenirs of our people. And so they do. Contributions for the building of the Mishkan, Holy Tabernacle are requested. The Israelite women come forward with their offerings. Mirrors. Moshe considers the mirrors and responds not unexpectedly. There is no place for a mundane symbol of vanity in the Mishkan. The Holy One Blessed Be He steps in, “Accept their offering, for these are dearer to me than everything else because through them the women raised up countless hosts in Egypt.” The mirrors were used in the holy Mishkan for the wash basin, to make pure the hands of the priests before their service of God.
Our tradition teaches us that our forefathers and mothers were redeemed from the Egyptian bondage on account of the righteous women of the generation. Righteousness takes many forms. The standard set by our matriarchs is sublime. It is borne of sacrifice, love and courage. The allure of the Jewish woman is legendary. Exhausted though we may be by Seder night let us not shy away from its presence nor desist from recalling it. The charoseth is a powerful symbol of life and womaness right there on the seder plate for all to be hold. Tell the tale and proudly say, This we eat “Zecher LaTapuach, in remembrance of the apple.”

The Knowing is in the Eating

It is a religion of food, this chewing over of our history at the Seder. If religion is a blend of faith, belief and knowing, then food plays a teasingly sporadic starring role, emerging here and there with a responsibility seemingly beyond its humble countenance.
We ask a lot of the food we eat. We rarely expect of it something as simple as fill the belly and fuel the body. No, we expect our food to entertain and to delight, to comfort and to soothe. On Seder night we ask our food to teach. We take the parsley dipped in salt water and invite it to remind us of the tears of the downtrodden. With bitter herbs in hand we dip into the sweet charoset and say, tell me how the slavery was bittersweet. And as we bite into the matzo we wait to taste the rushed reality of the dramatic escape from slavery.

Food as teacher is not quite the new or novel thought. Think back to the earliest of time, of Eden, of Paradise. God places two extraordinary trees in the garden; one a tree of life and the other a tree of knowledge, good and bad. God warns Adam not to eat of them. But Eve looks at the tree of knowledge and understands that it is not just a delight for the eyes but indeed a source of wisdom. She takes hold of the fruit, offers it to Adam and the eyes of the two of them are opened, and they see. They notice their own nakedness and realize their profound vulnerability; such is the knowledge of good and evil. I always wonder about this episode. Why is the fruit of the tree the conduit for knowledge, the vessel of wisdom? What is it about food that opens the eye?

There is a story we teachers tell about bread. Lecture a class about wheat, about its growth and harvest, about its milling and grinding. Tell them about the yeast and the kneading, the rising and the baking. Tell them everything, but until you slice that loaf fresh from the oven they will not know bread. The knowing is in the eating. There is something deep and primal about the taking into one’s mouth, tasting, chewing and ingesting that informs like nothing else. Food teaches in a distinctive manner.

Deep in the desert wilderness but one month out of Egypt and the people Israel are hungry, desperately hungry. They remember the foods of Egypt with a fond but distorted, embellished memory stinging with the immediacy of pain and empty bellies. They demand food. God rains down manna from heaven, which will not only nourish the body, but will also, teach the soul. The people will see the glory of God. They will know that God hears them and learn that humans do not live by bread alone, but rather by the word of the Lord. Such is the teaching power of food. It informs our very belief in God. The Israelites will fill themselves with nourishment, delivered with regularity to their doorsteps, and know that there is a Divine Provider.

There is a segue that occurs from the food we consume to the people we become. Food has the power to affect and to change us physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Our tradition has definite prescriptions about what we eat and how it is prepared. We have long dismissed notions of health as satisfying explanations for Kashrut. Reasons of discipline, separation and holiness resonate more powerfully. Maimonidies writes that those who are careful about what they eat and follow the laws of Kashrut will bring additional holiness and purity to their soul, cleansing their soul for the sake of Heaven fulfilling the command, And you shall be holy because I am holy.
This is an interesting marriage, the mundane nature of food and the lofty ideas of holiness. Food takes us by the hand and brings us closer to the sublime.

Not only do the foods that grace our tables lift us up, but we also take an additional step and imagine the very food of God. For if God feeds us and if we are to walk in the way of God and verily imitate his ways, is there a possible reciprocal human feeding of God? Far out and terrifying is this thought, but real nonetheless. Real in the metaphorical sense that is, the sacrifices of old are known as food pleasing with aroma to satisfy God, as the Torah tells us, “My food for My fires My satisfying aroma.” The mystical work the Zohar explains that “the offering brought to the Holy One was for the purpose of feeding the world and providing sustenance both for the upper and the lower worlds in as much as the as the upper world moves in response to the lower world.” Our actions change the world. The foods we eat, the offerings we give have the sway to change our small worlds of self as well as the large worlds way beyond.

Where are the offerings of today? Where are the altars of now? Our tradition tells us that gifts to the poor replace the offerings in the temple and so we begin our Seder with the proclamation, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” The food we set before the poor, the provisions placed before the needy, have an affect on our own food. It is no longer simply food that graces our tables but rather our food may become the stuff of noble sacrifices fit for God’s altar. Giving to the needy before the holiday and inviting those in need of a Seder to sit together with us changes what we serve and us, as well. Food can teache us that we are not the only ones who are hungry.

The lessons we learn on Pesach are not limited to usual ones taught in classrooms and with books. They are the lessons told by parent to child with foods laid out and eaten with intent. The instruction is slowly digested. Foods prepared with love and deliberateness, grace a table surrounded by family, friends and guests catapult us back in time. But that is certainly not all. The eating of these foods creates a moment of presentness that alerts us to value freedoms. The Hagaddah tells us that each one of us must see ourselves us if we have come out from Egypt. We are slaves that have been freed. We can feel it because we can taste it. We are told to leave the Seder table with the taste of Afikomen in our mouths. Perhaps it will lead us this year to dream of peace and freedom for all who are enslaved.

Pesach Prep

First, remain calm; second, get out your notebook, organization is essential. But before you launch into any of the nitty gritty, you must get your head into the right place. The key to the entire production is joy. Be thrilled to be able to place before your family a meaningful experience; the gift of love as reflected in the food, the table and the deep devotion to our people and tradition. Keep in mind; this is not just a meal, this is not just a holiday. You are facilitating perhaps the most essential ritual in Judaism. Your home will be transformed and your table elevated, as you lead your loved ones into the enchanted transcendent mysterium that is Seder night.

Now for the planning - enlist the help of your family; their being a part of the effort is indispensable. Make sure that each member feels a part of the process and that they each have roles that match their age and inclinations. Keep in mind that the meaning of the word Seder is order; embrace this “Big Idea” as of right now. With order and deliberation you will make this happen! Begin with the goal in mind. For me it is sitting serenely at Seder table. Now, work your way backwards, list what will need to be done the day of the Seder, the day before the Seder, and the week before the Seder and even the month before the Seder.

Think through not only your menu but the ritual foods as well. Now is the time to call relatives and get those heirloom recipes. Get a folder and start placing the Pesach recipes in it; you will use this rest of your life. Start perusing Passover cookbooks with post-a-notes in hand. Do not get carried away. Plan familiar recipes and introduce only one or two new ones. The brisket you made on Rosh Hashanah is not much different than the one you will make on Pesach. List each food that you will need to prepare and begin to generate a shopping list of the ingredients you will need. Set up a cooking and shopping time table. I put up a huge piece of butcher paper on the wall of the kitchen and list each food in big letters. This helps me keep track of what needs to get done. Crossing them each off you will find is deeply satisfying.

Part of preparing for the Seder involves doing some spring cleaning. With the inner sanctum of the home being the kitchen, work your way through the house. Plan to leave a week for the kitchen. Set aside the cabinets where you can begin putting away your Passover foods. Mark the Passover ones clearly.

The cleansing of the home from Chametz, leavening, has a symbolic significance. It represents the refining of our souls. As we search our pockets and drawers for crumbs, we must similarly search the deep recesses of our beings as well. Now we work at letting go of notions that have puffed us up. It is time to reign in our very human tendencies to exaggerate out of proportion our own selves.

The great scholar Rabbi Saadia Gaon understood it this way; “after the deeds follows the heart,” sometimes the actions lead and the thoughts comes along. As we inspect and cleanse our outer dwelling we scrutinize and search out our most inner of abodes. The cleaning of a closet can be deeply satisfying on many levels; it mirrors the inner work of the soul. Let go, give it away, divest your self. We need not posses all of the stuff filling our closets, nor our mental space. The closets are an easy start to get the practice going. My rule; if it has not been worn in the last year and half, someone else could be wearing it and if the ruminations of your mind continue to lead you no where positive, stop going there!

Set time aside to plan the Seder. Together with your family determine who the leader will be. Take a trip to the Jewish book store and consider all the different Haggadahs. Do you want everyone to read from the same book or would your prefer sprinkling different ones around? What Haggadah are the children going to use? While acquiring Haggadahs purchase some engaging Passover story books for your children. This is the time to build up their excitement.
Depending who your guests are you might divide up pieces of the Haggadah or simply rely on their participation on the night of the Seder.

The Haggadah has become a palate upon which many thinkers have drawn their story. We are no different. We each have a Pesach story to tell. Perhaps it is your family’s narrative of coming to America. It might be your own individual struggle with your own personal slavery. By studying the Haggadah ahead of time you will find the appropriate place to add your own original thoughts. Seder means order, yes, the order of the rituals that we perform Seder night, but there is more. Seder must also be the ordering of the world, the grappling with life and all its messy phenomena. What message of the Exodus speaks to you most? What questions yet remain? This should all be part of a meaningful Seder experience.

Though the task seems daunting, be assured; you will make it to Seder Night. As the demanding weeks of Seder planning and commotion unfold before us, let the joy in. Remember past generations whose monumental efforts have segued into ours. Let us appreciate the breezy way we load those groceries into our shopping cart and pack them into our car. The ease with which we switch on the stove, twist the oven dial and turn the faucet for hot water. Enjoy your preparations; the journey may turn out to be as rewarding as the destination.

The Four Sons

The segment of the four sons is assuredly a core piece of the Seder. It fits in neatly with the “four theme” - four cups of wine, four questions, four sons. Nonetheless, I appreciate your issue. The wicked son is disconcerting to be sure – who would want to picture a child as evil? To best begin to grapple with the “four sons” we must sketch out the basics about this theme of different children and then attempt to deal wisely with the wicked sibling. Hopefully, by the end it will even seem simple and perhaps we will be left with no questions.

The idea of the four sons is drawn from four sets of passages in the Torah that discuss Pesach and the Exodus. On four occasions the notion of children asking or the telling children is mentioned. Here are the four sets of verses. For the sake of brevity I quote them not in full and urge you to check them out inside the text itself.

We begin with a verse in Deuteronomy 6:20, “When, in time to come, your children ask you, What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?” and then these three separate verses from Exodus; in 12:26 “And when your children ask you, What do you mean by this rite?” in 13:14, “And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, What does this mean? You shall say to him, It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.” And finally in 13:8, we find, “And you shall explain to your son on that day, It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”

Consider the verses carefully. Are there nuances that would lead you to label the child in any way? Are you able to detect any subtleties that imply a gradation of sorts in relation to the character of the child doing the asking?

Though we may not be able to discern the shades of wisdom or wickedness, wholesomeness or lack of wonderment, the Mechilta, a very early midrash on the Book of Exodus, identifies the four different verses and the children there mentioned, as the four sons that you and I know of from the Hagadah; the wise, wicked, simple, together with the child who knows not how to ask. I presented the verses in the order of the Hagadah, so go back and consider the designations. What about the passages indicates the son assigned to it? The first verse has detailed questions about laws – the wise son. The second passage seems to have a negative tone – what do you mean by these laws! – the wicked son. The third passage is simply simple, what is this? – the simple son. Finally, in the last passage the child does not ask and therefore is identified as the one who knows not how to ask.

This is the source then of the notion of the wicked son. We can surmise that the author of the midrash notices the four verses and wonders about the redundancy of a child asking four times; it must be there to teach us something specific. That something is the idea that there are different types of children and they each demand a different approach. Each child asks their own question and each child needs their own answer – even the child who cannot ask.

Before discussing the categorization or the qualification of each child let’s pause to appreciate the two pedagogic concepts that our tradition is suggesting here. Both sound educational practices; firstly, we do not pound out one lesson for all students but rather we know that each child must be taught in a way that makes sense for them. So, though we have a classroom full with many children we try to differentiate our teaching to work for each child. A second wonderful teaching idea is the recognition that good learning emerges from the curiosity of children. Here we have two educational notions put forth in ancient sources that resonate even to current sensibilities; that is certainly worthy of appreciation.

Now, let’s consider the questions of the children. What are they truly asking? Though they are focusing on the practices of the evening, remember that on Seder night when we reflect on our history we use symbols and rituals to trigger our memory and nudge us on in the telling of our story. When we ask about the eating matzoh and of maror – what we really are asking is the classic question of theodicy; why does evil occur if there is an omniscient omnipotent God? Why were the Jews enslaved for hundreds of years? Why were our lives bitter, why were we compelled to eat the bread affliction?

Now consider the particular verses assigned to each child; in what way do they address this reformulation of the question; Mah nishtana? How is this night different from all other nights? The wise child, according to Rabbi Joseph Solovietchik, knows that there is no adequate answer for humans in regards to the issue of theodicy, the Rav, in his seminal article, “Kol Dodi Dofek –My Beloved is Knocking” addresses the issue of the Holocaust, and there he suggests that the wise son confronted with evil in the world, asks not; why? but rather, what can I do about it? How am I supposed to react to tragedy? What is our response to suffering? He therefore talks about action; what are the practices? The lesson we learn from the wise child is to take steps to address the pain in the world, rather than to ask about God’s role.

Taking a closer look at the responses to the children we can discern the appropriate answer to this line of questioning and then notice that the response to the wicked son addresses his stance, by taking the wicked approach he has have excluded himself from the destiny of the Jewish people. When grappling with the uncomfortable phenomenon of a “wicked child” perhaps it would help to think of him as an archetype instead; one who challenges to the point of exclusion.

Finally, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik’s brother, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik offers this appealing approach to the four sons. They are not four different children but rather four stages we each go through, through our lives; we begin as one who cannot ask, progress to the wonderful school age stage as simple kids, then most assuredly move into the adolescent stage…hmmm wicked? Finally, we all reach that coveted wise stage as adults.

This tactic of seeing the sons not as absolutes, leads us to realize that for some it may be distinct stages while for others it may be the normal fluctuations that we all go through in life. Each of us is at times depending on the situation, the wise, the wicked, the wondering or the without-question child.

Social constructivists would echo this approach and add that indeed an individuals personality is drawn out by those with whom they spend time– I suppose that throws the onus back on to each of us --- are we bringing out the wise, the wicked ,the wondering or the without questioning from those around us or from our children? Well given that, here’s an idea - let us hope that at this year’s Seder we will bring out the wise in everyone!