Seder 5773 – The night of the past and the future

The Torah speaks about four sons. May all of the children of Am Yisrael be “wise” and interested in Jewish heritage and traditions.

Western Wall in the snow 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Western Wall in the snow 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The Pessah Haggada conveys the secret which helped the Jewish nation survive for thousands of years: passing on to the next generation the heritage of the past and the history of how the Jewish nation was created.
The message inherent in this is that without a past, one cannot build a future, and that if we do not remember where we came from, we will not know where to go. The Haggada is composed of several parts. At the beginning, we describe the period of Am Yisrael’s enslavement in Egypt. Later, we find a description of the ten plagues with which G-d punished the Egyptian nation for their enslavement of the Jewish nation. Following this was the redemption and the exodus from Egypt, and at the end of the Haggada, we express our expectation for a full and speedy redemption and victory over all our enemies.
Throughout the Seder night, great emphasis is placed on involving the younger generation. This is expressed in the tradition of giving children nuts and candies so they will stay awake throughout the evening (it is also recommended to have younger children nap before the holiday). It is also expressed by placing the children in the center when they ask and sing Ma Nishtana – How is this night different from all other nights? They get encouragement and incentives that provide them with a sense of full involvement in running the Seder. And thus, a significant portion of the holiday’s traditions are meant to incite interest and curiosity among the younger generation sitting around the table.
The Haggada also includes educational guidelines on how to pass on the Pesach messages to each child according to his own style. The editors of the Haggadah divided children into four categories of sons: one who is wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask a question.
The wise son is the one who takes an interest, seeks knowledge and wisdom and wishes to know more and more about the history of Am Yisrael and its implications for the future of the nation.
The Haggada instructs us to tell this son the story from beginning to end, without mincing words or saving time.
The wicked son is the extreme opposite of the wise son. This son is not at all preoccupied with his glorious past. Jewish history does not speak to him at all, or maybe it even burdens him. He is not interested in learning any messages or ideas from it in order to succeed in the future. The Haggada tells us that we must warn this son and clarify to him that he cannot succeed if he disconnects himself from the history that shaped our nation and whose influence is strongly felt – even if he would prefer otherwise – until today.
“Know this,” we tell him. “If you had been there, during the great moments of the Exodus from Egypt, and had you spurned those events in the same way, you would not have been privileged to experience them properly and they really would not have influenced you. But luckily for you, you were not there, and therefore you are an inseparable part of the nation, with all that entails. And as such, we will not give up on you.
“We want to tell you, too, the story of the Exodus from Egypt – the story of the creation of the Jewish nation.”
The simple son is the one without enough of a background to be able to delve deeply into messages. He stares wide-eyed at the unusual traditions of the Seder night and asks us, “What’s this?” This son provides us with a complicated challenge: to start from the beginning and tell the story from its inception, including him too in the evening’s experience of freedom and joy. We have to invest a lot of effort so that no child remains out of the picture on this night.
The son who does not know how to ask is young and undeveloped, so much so that he does not even understand that he should ask “What’s this?” He looks at the Pessah Seder and does not notice the huge and unusual differences.
The educational guideline that appears in the Haggada on how to behave with this son is surprising. The Haggada does not instruct us to tell him the story, but to guide him toward the questions. And only then, when he asks for himself, should we answer and explain to him the messages of the holiday.
This is because whoever is not used to asking questions, researching and taking an interest, will never advance and think deeply about the significance of life. He will also remain behind, not thinking and not watching. Therefore, when we face the son who does not ask, we aim to educate him to ask questions, be amazed and curious, and when he asks – he will get answers.
The Torah speaks about four sons. May all of the children of Am Yisrael be “wise” and interested in Jewish heritage and traditions.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.