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!