Listening to the Four Children of the Haggadah

When we sit around our Seder tables, a stage set with various props and the script of the Haggadah, we prepare to tell a story.  This is a story of transformation from slavery, oppression and constriction to liberation, freedom and expansiveness.  These themes are complex, rich and layered, filled with human struggle and the hard and real work it takes to create change – inner and outer change.  But when we read through the Haggadah, it is a transformation we already expect.  We know how it starts. We know how it ends.  And in between, gefilte fish.

In her book, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, Dr. Aviva Zornberg reminds us – “What really happened in Egypt?” becomes a less important question than “How best to tell the story? Where to begin? What in the master story speaks to one, and therefore makes one speak?”…It is precisely through narration, by fulfilling the biblical imperative to tell the story, by continuing interaction between parents and children, that transformed versions of self and of the meanings of liberation will be generated” (p.4,5).

(NOTE: Dr. Zornberg will be in Toronto from Israel for a special lecture on April 29.  Don’t miss this rare opportunity to hear her!

The challenge and wondrous opportunity of the Seder, by using the familiar words and the structured map of rituals, is to generate a new experience, new insights and come out the other side, as a new self, individually and collectively.  We taste and sing, reflect and invite that ancient story into our own bodies, inner landscapes and into the world around us, ready to be surprised how it might move us and change us this year, on this night.

What can we hear in the master story, in the details and particulars of the Haggadah, that sparks fresh questions, that asks for our lived experience, that asks us to challenge what we think we know or understand or reject or embrace?  As Zornberg asks, what speaks to us? And what then makes us speak?

The Haggadah’s Four Children are fabulous instigators of new questions, experiences and responses.  The early rabbis who created the Haggadah pulled four different questions related to the Exodus from the Torah, questions without any particular personality behind them, and they imagined them being spoken by four very different mindsets and heart-sets: chacham (wise/thoughtful), rasha (wicked/rebellious/chutzpadik), tam (simple, innocent), eino yode’a lishol (one who doesn’t know how to ask).  We give each one a seat at our seder tables and we carefully listen to how and why they are asking us to tell the story.  Each one is there to give us a different route out of Egypt and into this year’s experience of liberation.

Rabbi Israel Salanter (Lithuania, 19th century) astutely points out, “We each have all the four children within us.”  The question will be, how do we listen, not to the child we habitually give a louder voice to, or feel most at home with, but rather – how do we listen to the child we tend to ignore, resist or dismiss, who has something fresh to ask and open in our understanding?  It is helpful that each of the children can be viewed as both generative in surfacing new questions and insights, or limiting and shutting off the possibilities of deepened engagement.

The chacham asks, “What are these testimonies, statutes and laws that Adonai our God commanded you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20)  This can be a person so concerned with the details, with getting things right, with needing to feel secure in knowing the answers, that she misses the broader experiences and insights that all these practices are seeking to nurture.  OR this can be someone who is awake with curiosity, who understands that living and learning and personal experience lie in the details and in the doing, not in abstract ideas or in doing a ritual without understanding its sources and contexts.  She wants to know so that she can act with more awareness, intention and resonant depth.

The rasha asks, “What does this service mean to you?” (Exodus 12:26). ‘To you’ and not ‘to him.’ And since he excluded himself from the collective, he rejects a major principle of the Jewish faith.”  This can be a person who is mocking and dismissive of everyone who finds meaning in this service, someone who separates himself from the Jewish people and from Jewish life, rejecting the Jewish past or present as having anything to do with him.  According to Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, this is someone who doesn’t understand that the work for redemption is perpetual and needs to be lived in as a practice, not just intellectualized.  OR this can be someone who is angry and frustrated by the unquestioning way that others practice, someone who is asking questions that challenge assumptions and are uncomfortable, perhaps someone who has been marginalized by the community and has been pushed into seeing himself as separate.  This person is hungry for meaning and is challenging the community to include his experience as part of the experience.

The tam asks, “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14).  Such a simple and broad question.  This could be someone who doesn’t know very much and wants a basic explanation.  This could be someone who isn’t interested in profound questions or exploration, who just wants to be given a basic answer and won’t ask anything else.  OR this can be someone approaching learning with beginner’s mind, clearing away what they think they know to encounter each ritual, each word, each moment as alive with  possibilities and utter newness.  The great Hasidic rabbi, Kalonymous Kalman of Pieasezna, teaches  that when this “child” learns, there is a fresh revelation in Heaven!

“And regarding eino yodey’a lishol, open [the conversation] for her.  Speak to your child on that day saying, “It is because of what Adonai did for me, when I went free from Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).”  This could be someone who is so disconnected or knows so little that they don’t know where to begin.  Perhaps they are afraid to reveal their lack of knowledge, or to sound simple.  OR this can be someone whose experience is so profound that it transcends language, one who is immersed in a moment of silent union more eloquent than words, whose insights are not about a quest for knowledge, but alive in direct encounter.

Each of these children asks us to tell the story differently.  Each one invites us to live the experience with them using different tools, opening to different aspects of ourselves, and exploring different relationships with the Pesach practices and with liberation in the world.  This year, see which child’s eyes you might want to look through to discover a new, important, enlivening path out of the narrows and into the expanse!

There are several wonderful opportunities to engage with Pesach with the DJC: