Pesach 5775 ~ Playing With the Four Children.
As we took turns around my parents’ table reading from the Haggadah every year, inevitably the moment would arrive when we would reach the Four Children – one described as wise, one as wicked, one as simple, and one who does not know how to ask. Each child receives a response from the adult voice of the Haggadah that airs either approval, censure, or simple instruction. There were always giggles and protestation as the person lucky to wind up reading the part of the wise child would shout out, “Yah! That’s me! I’m the wise child!” or someone would taunt, “Hey Miriam, you’re the wicked child. Ha-ha.”
As the children around the table grew older and as we, children and adults alike, became more deliberate and excited to surface questions and seek out meaningful responses, the children of the Haggadah became as three-dimensional and complex as our own learning styles, parenting and teaching styles, and orientations. We asked – If our primary tasks at the Seder are to both tell the story of the Exodus in all its cultural, spiritual, and contemporary meanings, and to see ourselves today as children of that liberation (two rather substantial and lively tasks!), how do the Four Children help us do that? Rather than seeing certain types of children as good and gold-star-worthy and others as bad and to be shamed or dismissed, how can each of these four children offer us different learning lenses, different modes of engaging with the telling and the responding? As I engage with the Four Children now, I see each one as potentially offering both a way of relating/interpreting that is decidedly unproductive AND a way of relating/interpreting that is generative and important.
Let’s look at each of them.
The wise child asks, “What are the terms and statues and laws that the Holy One (or read it as ‘Jewish tradition’) has charged you with?” Read in an unproductive light, this child can be seen as a know-it-all, caring more about doing it right than doing it meaningfully. This is a kind of hollow and rote observance. Read in a positive light, this child wants to know what to do. How do you ‘Jew’? How do you concretely embody the themes and values of Pesach? This is a child who loves ritual, symbolism, and action. The question can be seen as filled with curiosity and the desire to meet the traditional practices of generations with present lived experience and meaning.
The wicked child, states, “What is this to you?” The Haggadah responds, “Since the child has said ‘to you’ and not ‘to him/her’, s/he has excluded him/herself from the community and has denied the fundamental principle. So you should blunt his/her teeth and say, ‘For the sake of what Adonai did for me when I went out of Egypt. For me and not for him/her – if s/he had been there, s/he would not have been redeemed.”
It is clear that the early rabbis who composed the Haggadah hear the child’s question as unproductive, biting, and condescending, and that this child is rejecting any relationship with the Jewish community or Jewish life. S/he is sneeringly asking, “Why do you do any of this crap?”!
Read in a generative light, this child is the child of alienation and hurt. This child is not asking in order to attack, but rather is struggling to find a way in. I imagine her/him having grown up with no Jewish experience at all, or with only the Maxwell House Haggadah, racing through it as quickly as possible between eye-rolling and snide remarks, without any models or resources to make it his/her own, personally inspiring, or socially relevant. The fundamental principle here is community and relationship. No one can be forced to see themselves as part of this story, this heritage, or this community, but a challenging question can be seen precisely as reaching toward connection and the ‘wicked’ child reminds us that Pesach is a practice in being radically welcoming to anyone who wants to be part of the conversation, bringing all the questions and struggles they bring.
The simple child asks, “What is this?” Read in the most narrow sense, the simple child seems to be either quite young or not the brightest lightbulb in the box. There is no judgment from the Haggadah about this child, just a simple statement given in response to a simple question. Read more generously and generatively, we can hear this question as a question of a beginner’s mind. There are ways that understanding needs the concrete details the wise child asks for and there are insights that need a return to the most basic, simple questions. Such as, “What is present in this moment of our sitting together? What is the taste of matzah, the bread of simplicity and liberation? What is the inhalation of freedom?” The simple child’s question can be heard as a question of revisiting assumptions, of seeking fresh connection with the ideas, values, and actions that are the foundation of our lives.
Finally, is the child who does not know how to ask. Whether we hear this voice as one of ignorance, one who doesn’t have the tools to know where to begin a conversation, or we hear this as the kind of learner who engages best at the experiential level, the Haggadah responds, “You should begin for her/him.” This is the one we take by the hand to travel this Exodus journey alongside us.
Just as the Four Questions is a model of beginning to ask questions that we keep stirring all night, the Four Children offer a model of ways of engaging in the telling, different hats we might put on and take off throughout the evening as we read, taste, ask, and respond. In truth, we all hold aspects of each of the four children. As we read the Haggadah this year, who will you be? Can you try on all four hats and discover additional questions, voices, and responses, opening to new experience, seeking new learning, asking challenging questions, and living in this incredible story?