The four sons have become a metaphor for the spiritual difficulties facing Judaism through the ages. To the Jew in Spain, the sons reflected the challenges unique to their day and age. The wise son may have been burnt at the stake, proud to go to his death upholding the values that were dear to him. The wicked son was the child who was too easily persuaded to convert to Christianity as his feeling towards his ancestral family was hostile at best. The simple son was the well-meaning converso who secretly tried to maintain his heritage but found it almost impossible to pass down his legacy to his descendants. The fourth child was the apostate’s children who never even knew of their Jewish heritage and roots.
There are always new dilemmas facing our people. Today our challenge is twofold: a global external threat that seems mono-focused on the destruction of the State of Israel, and an internal dichotomy led by a breakdown of the hierarchy of Judaism. The Malbim compared the four sons to the difficulties his community faced in dealing with the haskalah – the enlightenment movement. Thus, I will follow his path and relate the four sons to an issue that is of paramount importance in our generation.
To the post-Holocaust Jew, nothing is more important than the State of Israel. During his address to Congress, Benjamin Netanyahu assured the world that Jews will never again be without a home. Israel will ensure that Jews will always have a safe passage and will not be subject to ever changing political agendas. Perhaps in our generation the four sons have a direct impact on our relationship to Israel. The wise son is the Zionist – the child who understands that support for Israel is paramount to ensure the viability of the Jewish people. He questions their often puzzling political decisions but never uses it as a justification for relinquishing his love, admiration and support of the Holy land. The wise son realizes that Israel and the Jewish people are linked by a common destiny and one without the other is untenable.
The wicked son dresses in grand attire as he sits among the intelligentsia. He finds favors with our enemies and encourages our friends to see Israel as the Pariah. He asks questions that seem genuine, but his tongue mirrors the cleverness of the fox. He pretends to be an advocate of Israel, but in reality he seeks Israel’s demise. The wicked sons have Jewish sounding names (J-Street) but their evil intentions are clear. They are disinterested in honest debate and join the liberal caucuses in condemning and ostracizing the Jewish state. Their ears are highly sensitive and hear only the lies, distortions, and the revisionists reality of the facts. The Haggadist correctly admonishes them: Hakheh et Shinav – knock out their teeth. Capitulation to them is not on the table and there is no need to respond to those who will never heed the truth.
The simple son follows the teachings of the wise son; he waves his blue and white flag and knows the words of Hatikvah. They celebrate their Bar/Bat mitzvot at the Wailing Wall and proudly sing Am Yisrael Chai. They enjoy falafel, albeit sans charif – without the spice – and proudly wear their Magen David without fear or intimidation. However, in college they are confronted by anti-Israel propaganda and are ill prepared to respond. Slowly their flags are hidden, their Chai necklaces are removed, and their commitment to Judaism and Israel dissipates.
The saddest of all is the child that grew up in a J-Street home. He may attend a local synagogue, but he listens attentively to his rabbi’s staunch Anti-Israel agenda. He hears such holy words as Tikkun Olam, but is told that remedying the world can only be accomplished by denigrating and destroying Israel. His religious upbringing is void of a spiritual connection to Torah, Israel, and the Jewish people. He believes in being good, but has no Jewish backbone to allow him to stand proud in the face of criticism. He slowly but surely blends into his secular surroundings, oblivious to the Judaism he abandoned.
As we prepare for our Seder we can use the theme of the four children as a means of motivating those sitting around our table. We can discuss issues that are relevant today by using the Hagaddah as our guide. And may our children join in the Seder discussion and proudly conclude with the words L’shana Haba’ah B’yerushalayim – next year in Israel – with the wisdom and conviction of the wise son.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Jack Engel
I have written of the observant Jew and his/her willingness to accept a life of passivity, to go through life never bucking the trend or even probing what needs to be questioned. We spoke of the proverbial third son; the unquestioning, God fearing, observant simpleton. You may know him by his self-control; the person sitting next to you in shul whose tallit is donned upon his head during the silent Amidah, reminiscent of a spiritual crown. His lips quiver in fear while reciting the holy words of sh’ma, but alas he can barely fathom its meaning, albeit too embarrassed to ask. His orthodoxy is highlighted as the bright spark of the Pew report; his propensity for large families and his low level of intermarriage are enough to catapult him into savior status. He may be the Chasid with ten children who passionately embraces a Chasidic master. He may be the yeshiva student dutifully obeying his rabbis as they promote a life limited to Torah scholarship. He blindly accepts the guarantees given to him in assuring his successful future regardless of his lack of economic preparedness. She may be the elderly woman reciting Psalms who quietly endures her demeaning status but is satiated by the promise of a heavenly reward. These are righteous people whose only flaw may be their innocence and devotion to leaders who may be motivated by selfish interests.
While I feel for those whose lives are limited by a distortion of authentic Judaism, I can’t help but hold them partially responsible. Our Torah is replete with examples of our patriarchs’ willingness to challenge even the Almighty Himself. Avraham beckons God to reconsider his position on Sodom, and Moshe challenges God to forgive the Jewish nation for the sin of the Golden Calf. He even had the audacity to ask that his name be omitted from His Torah if He fails to heed his request. Furthermore, Noach is castigated as weak minded and lacking leadership as he failed to stand up against God when He told him about the impending flood that will destroy mankind. Even the Haggadah which recalls our history is a book of contradictions. It commences with our forefathers’ idolatrous ways and begs the reader to challenge and question. Silence may be golden, but fool’s gold also gives off a promising luster.
With tears forming in our eyes we read about the tragic fire in New York that ended the lives of seven innocent children over Shabbat. The eulogies were gut wrenching and our hearts go out to the grieving father as he stood before the shrouded bodies of his children. We continue to pray for a refuah sh’laimah for the mother and daughter and hope the family finds some way of coping with the enormous tragedy. However, an excerpt from the Hamodia Newspaper sent a shiver down my spine and caused me to realize the shocking depth of certain fundamentalist views. The community was exhorted to control their emotions and reject the temptation to question God. To expect those that are in pain to quash their feelings seems inhumane and to have them forcibly muzzled seems the antithesis to the Seder night and Pesach. This only serves to foster a deterioration of our people’s intellect by morphing the simple son into sheino yodea lishol. We want future generations of Jewish children to be able to formulate questions and think for themselves. We should never accept a discipline that prohibits our ability to understand.
As we grapple to try to come to terms with this indescribable tragedy, it is imperative that we bear in mind what Mr. Sassoon said in his eulogy. “The petirah – death of these seven pure souls are korbanos tzibbur [communal sacrifices],” he said, adding that “there is nothing to say — the only thing to do is to surrender to the will of Hashem [God].”
When learning of a tragedy of any sort, there is a natural inclination to make inquiries as to precisely what occurred and how it happened. Often, these questions are driven by a fear of this happening to us, and the subconscious desire to use this detailed information to distance our own circumstances from those of the victims and comfort ourselves with the thought that this couldn’t happen to us.
But as Torah Jews, we must seek to quell this inclination with the realization that this is about all of us.
Certainly, hishtadlus (personal responsibility) for safety is obligatory at all times, but the primary reaction to this communal tragedy must be of spiritual introspection. This is a time for each of us to make a cheshbon hanefesh – a deep and penetrating look at our souls, to look deep within the recesses of our own heart and seek the way to return to Hashem. However, in order to do so, we must first fortify ourselves with emunah peshutah –simple faith.
As we are about to read the Haggadah, it is important to note the wise son’s question. I am less interested with the depth of the question and more focused on the central role questioning has always had in Judaism. If I may borrow a phrase from JFK, I would say: ask not what God wants from you; ask what you want from God. Indeed, to ask is not a privilege granted to a select few, it is a core element of what makes Judaism so pertinent and relevant for future generations.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Jack Engel