Blessed is God, Blessed is He; Blessed is the One who Gave the Torah to His people Israel, Blessed is He. Corresponding [lit. against or opposite] to four sons did the Torah speak; The wise, the evil one, one who is innocent and one who doesn’t know to ask. (see Sefaria )”
בָּרוּךְ הַמָּקוֹם, בָּרוּךְ הוּא, בָּרוּךְ שֶׁנָּתַן תּוֹרָה לְעַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. כְּנֶגֶד אַרְבָּעָה בָנִים דִּבְּרָה תוֹרָה: אֶחָד חָכָם, וְאֶחָד רָשָׁע, וְאֶחָד תָּם, וְאֶחָד שֶׁאֵינוֹ יוֹדֵעַ לִשְׁאוֹל.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Four Children is not a popularity contest. The Wise Son is not meant to be a role model and the Wicked Son is not the big loser.
Against Four Sons against the Torah speaks כנגד ארבעה בנים דיברה תורה
Think of “against” כנגד as in opposition. Against – כנגד asks us to engage in discourse and debate these personality types; to confront, admonish, affront… Think of it as a pedagogic teaching-moment. Think of the friction and counter-balance in a healthy relationship. Think of the first relationship, of Eve with Adam:
And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man is alone; I shall make him a helpmate opposite him.” Genesis 2:18
וַיֹּאמֶר הֹ אֱ-לֹהִים לֹא טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ אֶעֱשֶׂה לּוֹ עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ
Rashi: a helpmate opposite him: If he is worthy, she will be a helpmate. If he is not worthy, she will be against him, to fight him. — [from Gen. Rabbah 17:3, Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer , ch. 12. See also Yev. 63a] זכה עזר, לא זכה כנגדו להלחם עזר כנגדו
The type of relationship and conversation demanded by the Torah for the Four Children is the same type of interaction associated with a marriage… If the child is missing the point of the Seder, you need to speak up for both your sakes.
When you think of “against” you can also think of מתן תורה the Revelation at Sinai… This is after all how the haggadah introduces the Four Sons.
Blessed is He that gave the Torah to His People Israel ברוך שנתן תורה לעמו ישראל
The Torah uses the same word כנגד when talking about the Children of Israel in juxtaposition to Mt. Sinai.
They [the Children of Israel] journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain [Mt. Sinai]. Exodus 19:2
וַיִּסְעוּ מֵרְפִידִים וַיָּבֹאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינַי וַיַּחֲנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וַיִּחַן שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר
When the Torah confronts the four children think of a revelation, think of a life changing moment, an epiphany, an intervention.
Getting back to the Four Children, let’s begin by leveling the playing field. Each of these children desperately needs a wake-up call. A gentle caress for some, a jarring blow for others… but trust me, all are missing the point of the Exodus/Seder.
And lets keep to the facts. We know nothing about all of these types besides the one character trait which stands between them and an Exodus.
All we can say of the Wise son is that he is Wise. He might be a bore, a miser, a fornicator, a dead-beat, or an arrogant son of a bitch.
The Simple Child might be an artist or clairvoyant. The child who doesn’t know how to ask might be a survivor… Who are we to say?
And the Evil Child. The Evil child, besides the one character fault impugned, might be or appear for all intents and purposes, a tzadik (righteous man).. more about that in my next post…
The personality trait that requires an intervention is the only one to which the Torah and by extension, we, the participants in a Seder, are meant to address.
The character deficit we are meant to address lies exclusively in his question and our answer.
I will focus only on the Wise son (in this post) and the Evil son (in my next post) because …. They interest me (and my guess.. you) the most and because it is these two that the text of the Haggadah singles out.
It is only for these two that we are told “and even you” אף אתה should respond. “And even you” is not simply emphatic, it is reflective and reflexive. “And even you” is a tagline that we should recognize and that challenges us to venture a comparison.
Hama son of R. Hanina further said: What means the text: Ye shall walk after the Lord your God?( Deut. XIII, 5) Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shechinah; …But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked, … so do thou also clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick, … so do thou also visit the sick. The Holy One, blessed be He, comforted mourners, … so do thou also comfort mourners. The Holy one, blessed be He, buried the dead, … so do thou also bury the dead. (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a)
להלך אחר מדותיו של הקב”ה מה הוא מלביש ערומים דכתיב ויעש ה’ א-להים לאדם ולאשתו כתנות עור וילבישם אף אתה הלבש ערומים הקב”ה ביקר חולים דכתיב ירא אליו ה’ באלוני ממרא אף אתה בקר חולים הקב”ה ניחם אבלים דכתיב ויהי אחרי מות אברהם ויברך א-להים את יצחק בנו אף אתה נחם אבלים הקב”ה קבר מתים דכתיב ויקבר אותו בגיא אף אתה קבור מתים
The expression אף אתה “Even You” is used to dare us… in the one case to dare us to try to imitate God and likewise, in the Haggadah’s case, to dare us to find the “wise” and “evil’ child in ourselves.
The Haggadah is telling us “grownups” that you need this medicine too אף אתה. You’re more similar to this child than you think אף אתה. You share the malady more than you might be willing to admit…. EVEN YOU.. need to speak this question and listen to the answer.
What does the wise [son] say? “‘What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the Lord our God commanded you?’ (Deuteronomy 6:20)” And accordingly [and even] you will say to him, as per the laws of the Pesach sacrifice, “We may not eat an afikoman [a dessert or other foods eaten after the meal] after [we are finished eating] the Pesach sacrifice.”
חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מָה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם. וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמוֹר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן
It seems to me that the Wise child has all the book knowledge and knows all the facts. But he’s missing something. He like the Wicked child distances himself from the participants by saying “you” and not “us”. In the answer we are to give, we get a sense of exactly what he is distancing himself from. We are to discuss the Passover Sacrifice – a historical artifact of a temple no-more and it’s replacement; the Afikomen replete with its folklore, superstition, and childish hide-and-go seek game to which it owes its brand identity…
We are to discuss with this Wise Guy son the cultural, emotional and historical baggage that our people, his people, carry. And we are to discuss with him the unwritten, undocumented and unquantifiable, sometimes child-like, sometimes humorous, sometimes superstitious and sometimes ahistorical parodies and cultural tics that enable us to survive. Most of all we confront him with two emotions not found in any text book. Compassion and wonder.
Here’s where I leave you to your own wise guy answers and imagine how some of my favorite thinkers and story tellers might have answered
Abraham Joshua Heschel
“ Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.”
“Our holy Rabbis teach us that the chacham, the clever boy, is very beautiful as long as you think that being clever is everything. The chacham is intellectual, he needs to be taught. How about stopping being only intellectual? How about tasting the Afikoman, tasting the depths of life, feeling deep emotion and serving god with it? The clever person isn’t far away from the wicked person. “
“The Koznitzer Maggid says about Yachatz [the broken Afikomen], “The world is so broken, but our children can make the world whole again. We break the matzah; the small piece we keep, and the big piece – the bigger brokenness – our children take away. Then they bring it back to us whole, to serve as the Afikomen at the end of the seder.” Our children they are the ones that are taking brokenness away from us.”
The Carlebach Haggadah: Seder Night with Reb Shlomo by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach p 39-40 and 19-20
And best for last…
Chaim Potok in the Chosen when Reb Saunders explains why he stopped talking to his son Danny…
The Chosen By Chaim Potok pp 285-6