Four Kinds of Children and Four or Five Questions
The sages speak of four kinds of children who view the Seder in four different ways and so ask different questions.
- The wise child asks: What does this all mean?
This child should be taught about the details of the Seder. Talk with this child about the nature of freedom and justice and about the need to act to transform the world.
- The isolated child asks: What does this mean to all of you? In doing this, this child isolates him or herself from the community of the Seder.
This child should be answered by saying: Join us tonight. Be fully here. Listen closely. Sing and read and dance and drink. Be with us, become a part of us. Then you will know what the Seder means to us.
- The simple child asks: What is this?
We will say: Sweetheart, this wondrous evening happens in the spring of every year, so that we may remember how out of death and sorrow and slavery came life and joy and freedom. To remember the sorrow we eat bitter herbs; to remember the joy we drink sweet wine. And we sing of life because we love ourselves and each other and you.
We are thankful for the questions that children ask – for growth and strength and courage and safety and love and warmth and fun and friends; for games and work and pets and teachers, for sisters and brothers, parents and grandparents and all the favorite relatives in the world; for trees, ducks, bunnies, and raisins, peanut butter, clean pajamas, bicycles, dolls, and bathtubs. For you, the young people here tonight; for all that you love and for your futures.
The Four Children…Considering the Middle
Four children bring different questions to the Seder table tonight:
The angry child asks, “Why should I compromise?”
And we answer that we choose the route of compromise because the alternative is the mutual destruction, both moral and physical, of our two peoples. If we fail to compromise we will lose a vision of the future for our children.
The naïve child asks, “Why can’t we just love each other?”
And we answer that neither of us can live as if history has not happened. Unfortunately, too much blood has already been shed on both sides. It takes time to build trust.
The frightened child asks, “How can I be safe?”
And we answer that we are both afraid. “How can I be safe if my brother and sister is not safe?”
The wise child asks, “How can we share the land in peace?”
And indeed this is the question with which we will wrestle tonight.
The Wicked Child??
The second of the four children is the Haggadah is the “wicked” child. Rabbi Isaac Luria (a great 16th century mystic form Safed) noticed something very unusual about this wicked child. Rabbi Luria pointed out that, although the wicked child is condemned very strongly in the Haggadah, he is not placed last among the children. In fact, the wicked child is placed second among the children before the more appealing simpler children. Luria even said that if you imagine a correspondence between the four children and the four cups of wine, you discover some thing even more important. Most of the Haggadah is recited as a buildup toward the second cup which could be called the cup of the wicked child.
Why should this be? Why honor the wicked child by allotting so much of the Haggadah to his cup of wine?
What do you and the people at your Seder think? Is the wicked child really so wicked?
Is there something positive about his/her wickedness? Is it possible that the wicked child actually adds something positive to the Seder – and to life in general?
A Fifth Child: The Challenging Child
(Adapted from Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman)
The Book of Exodus contains the very bedrock of Judaism: the charge to tell the story of the Exodus to every "next generation." Our challenge is not the message we are to tell -- the insistence on freedom could not be more relevant. What should concern us is the particular "next generation" to whom we are supposed to be doing the telling.
"Next-generation" problems are not new: already in the second century, the Rabbis anticipated them, by conceptualizing children as wise, evil, simple, or unable even to ask the right question. Seven centuries later, that "Four Sons" Midrash entered the Haggadah and has been a favorite Passover reading ever since. The evil child, especially, has attracted commentary through the ages.
The notion of four childhood types derives from the fact that the Torah pictures our retelling the story four separate times, one of them in response to a child who says, "What is this service to you?" [Ex: 12:26], as if to say, "To you, not to me!" The Talmud Yerushalmi has the evil child add, "What is all this burden that you impose upon us year after year?" Evil children, then, are those who willfully read themselves out of the chain of Jewish tradition. The Passover seder and its message are treated like burdens to be avoided as much as possible....
But perhaps the time has come for us to dispense with the very concept of an evil son. We have a fifth type of child now: the challenging son or daughter, a learned sophisticate who asks us to justify Judaism in terms that are at least as convincing as the many other competing claims to identity in today's complicated world.
The onus is on us to do so. To explain our commitment to Jewish life. To explain our passion for Judaism. What might we say to the challenging child - especially if he or she is a teenager or in his or her 20's or 30's? What might you say? How about the guests around your Seder table?
The Four Children…thinking about justice
At Passover, we are confronted with the story of our ancestor’s pursuit of liberation from oppression. Facing this mirror of history, how do we answer our children when they ask us how to pursue justice in our time?
What does the Activist Child ask?
“The Torah tells me, ‘Justice shall you pursue,’ but how can I pursue justice?”
Empower him always to seek pathways to advocate for the vulnerable. As the Book of Proverbs teaches, “Speak up for the mute, for the rights of the unfortunate. Speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy.”
What does the Skeptical Child ask?
“How can I solve problems of such enormity?”
Encourage her by explaining that she need not solve the problems, she must only do what she is capable of doing. As we read in Pirke Avot, “It is not your responsibility to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
What does the Indifferent Child say?
“It’s not my responsibility.”
Persuade him that responsibility cannot be shirked. As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The
opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
And the Uninformed Child who does not know how to ask…
Prompt her to see herself as an inheritor of our people’s legacy. As it says in Deuteronomy, “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”