The most important son at the Seder is not the wise one. Not that the hacham is insignificant, but it’s not for his sake that the Haggada (based on the verse from Exodus 13:8, vehiggadeta levin’cha, “you shall narrate to your son”) explains the details of the festival. He is so instinctively studious that he will make his own decision to delve into the sources and to find good questions and even some answers. Nor is it the wicked son, the rasha, even though his nasty, negative attitude is a shock and a challenge and we can deal with him robustly. It is not the simple son, the tam, because we can always treat him gently enough and coax him sufficiently to get him involved and onside.
No – the most important son is the fourth son, the “she’eno yodea lishol,” the one who “knows not to ask.”
It is for him that the whole Haggada has been designed and compiled. When this son fails to ask, the parent is told, “At petah lo” – you must open up the discussion, you must take the initiative, you must tell him the story yourself.” Telling the story by narrating the Haggada is our way of handling the problem that he represents.
The question is why he does not ask. If he is too young, time will fix that problem. If he is ignorant of Judaism and it’s all rather strange to him, a modicum of reading and learning will remove the mystery (though hopefully not the mystique). If he is a passive type, a motivational presentation will arouse him and awaken his interest.
Is it that his problem is that he does not want to ask? The reason might be smugness. Maybe he is so cocksure that he sees no need to delve, to inquire, to find out more. If that makes him a kind of wicked son, should we take a big-stick wicked-son approach and be tough on him, telling him harshly that because of people like him the whole Exodus from Egypt might have been impossible? After all, if the Israelites had not been aroused to protest against the slavery, if they had not yearned for salvation, if they had not been desperate to break free, the Exodus might not have happened, and the enslavement would have gone on longer.
It’s a reasonable supposition that some people in Egypt held back, not necessarily out of passivity, but out of cussedness. They said, if they said anything at all, “Leave me alone!” Their ilk didn’t die out. Faced with that kind of son, today’s parent is told, “At petach lo” – you take the initiative, get the message across that in actuality he doesn’t know it all and it’s worth asking for information.
This does not mean that he has to automatically endorse everything that people do, or say, or are. That would make him a sheep without a mind of his own.
He should not feel that he has to meekly follow the herd, to give up his independence or individuality.
If he wants to rebel, so be it, though we would prefer that he be a rebel within the community and not a non-Jewish Jew (Isaac Deutscher’s phrase), on the outside looking in.
A different possibility is that he doesn’t ask because he is apprehensive that someone will tell him that one isn’t allowed to ask. Being told, “Freg nit! Don’t ask!” is a guaranteed put-off, leaving a person muzzled, blocked, unable to query what is happening or to challenge the policies of the powers that be, becoming, literally, “The one who doesn’t ask.” What we need to persuade him is that asking questions is not only permitted but an accepted Jewish habit. How sad it is when somebody is a she’eno yodea lishol, who knows from bitter experience that it’s better not to ask.
I have never forgotten what a senior colleague said to me years ago, at a time when as a youngster in the rabbinic profession in Britain I urged a conference of Anglo-Jewish preachers to discuss the moral problems of the time. Asked for an example of the moral problems I had in mind, I proffered one. I mentioned drug-taking. My colleague said, “It’s simple. Just tell them two things, ‘M’darf nit fregen,’ you shouldn’t ask, and ‘m’tor nit,’ it’s not on; don’t do it!” I saw no point in pursuing the subject further at that point. I didn’t want to be impolite to a rabbinic veteran, but there was something quite unrabbinic in the riposte I had received from him. It went against all I had believed about rabbis. I thought all rabbis had been brought up on the talmudic process of asking, arguing and counter-reasoning, but maybe this one hadn’t.
The ancient sages debated what it meant for Judaism when people asked questions. One view was that it was a bad sign. The need to ask questions was an indication of ignorance. Another view was that it was a good sign, as asking questions was an indication of interest.
These days, if and when the four sons (or daughters, or anyone) ask questions, the answer can’t be “m’darf nit fregen” or even “m’tor nit!” If questions need asking, let them be asked and discussed. If there is an action which the rules say people shouldn’t do, let it be talked through, not just banned outright.
Isidor Isaac Rabi (1898-1988) was head of the physics department at Columbia University, an outstanding man of science and Nobel laureate. He was asked what got him involved in scientific research, and he said, “I couldn’t help it!” He explained that when he was a child and the family immigrated to the United States, he went to a public school on the East Side of Manhattan.
Every day when he came home from school, his mother greeted him with the words, “Did you ask any good questions today?” Noting his mother’s emphasis on knowledge, Rabi dedicated his life to questions. The fourth son at Seder has to ask questions, or else he will never find the truth and the community will not make progress.
The question is whether there have to be answers.
Note that the Haggada never explicitly answers the Mah Nishtanah. There are four good questions, but where are the four good answers? True, you find that if you get through the Haggada to the end, it has more or less explained all that the questioner wants to know, which has an importance in itself. Once you possess the full facts, you often find that the questions seem to fall away.
But there is a deeper explanation. It has been said that the simplest child can ask such deep questions that even the wisest greybeard cannot answer. Acquiring the full, precise answers might turn out to be beyond us, at least at this stage of human and personal development.
We might achieve tentative answers to a few of the questions. But that doesn’t make the whole list of questions wrong or redundant. It tells us not to be in a hurry or expect everything to become clear at once.
Mendele Mocher Sefarim says, “Not all questions may be asked, nor is there an answer for every question.”
He is only half right. Every question may and ought to be asked, but there might not be an answer.
Or at least not yet. The rabbis say that before the Messiah comes, Elijah will come on earth to answer all the open-ended questions that have piled up over the ages.
In the meantime we have to keep waiting. We can certainly keep asking.