Temple Beth Joseph of Herkimer, New York

A Conservative Synagogue in New York’s Mohawk Valley

The 4 Children… or Why I Am Proud To Be a “Rasha”

April 2017

Once again, at our Passover seders, as we read & chant from the Passover Haggadah, the number 4 will make its august presence felt. How many 4s are there in the Haggadah? We drink 4 ceremonial cups of wine, though with the addition of Elijah’s cup, 5 ceremonial cups are poured. Someone, usually the youngest, will recite the 4 questions, though a close reading of the text indicates that there is really only 1 question asking why the night is different & 4 clauses explaining how the night is different. We read the rabbinic explanation of 4 Torah verses, Deu.26:5-8, which contains a brief synopsis of the Passover story. We spill a drop of wine as we recite the 4th plague, & Rabbi Eliezer teaches that each plague has a 4-fold character yielding 200 plagues at the sea. There are 3 ceremonial pieces of matzah, 1 of which is broken in half yielding 4 ceremonial pieces. 4 blessings are recited over food immediately preceding the festival meal. God is blessed 4 times with the traditional opening words, Barukh atah Adonai in the Birkat HaMazon. And, the song “Who Knows One” mentions the 4 matriarchs. This is an impressive list to say the least, though I hasten to add, it is hardly complete.

Perhaps the best known of all the 4s in the Haggadah, though, is the parable of the 4 children. According to the Haggadah, these 4 children are mentioned in the Torah. The midrashic reference in the Haggadah actually alludes to 4 separate verses in the Torah (Exo.12:26, Exo.13:8, Exo.13:14, Deu.6:20) in which God commands Israel “you shall tell your child…” Why, the rabbis must have pondered, did Torah mention this “telling” 4 times. Their cogitations on this point include the parable of the 4 children. The description of the 4 children has been a favorite discussion topic at nearly every Passover seder I have ever attended. It has been scrutinized, modernized, rendered gender neutral, & explained in a myriad of different ways. I am sure that each of us has our own favorite version of this parable & our own favorite explanation of it as well.

For example, the child who does not know how to ask a question teaches us that we who are in charge of rearing that child are obligated to inculcate our children with our values & with our viewpoints. Not when the child is old enough to learn, but from the very moment it is born, do we begin to teach our children & the sooner we make a conscious effort to instill our values, the sooner our children learn them. The wise child & the simple child, together, teach that education is successful only when the teacher engages the student with material that the student finds relevant or interesting. To instruct a novice with advanced material is ludicrous. But, it is no more effective than trying to teach a Ph.D. mathematician elementary algebra. Why then, we must ask, does the greater segment of American Jewry continue to teach apples & honey on Rosh Hashanah to students who have learned it thousands of times before?

There is, however, a troubling aspect to the parable of the 4 children. The parable, itself, assumes a particular viewpoint that may not be justified any longer in our modern world. The “hakham”, or wise child, asks what the rules & regulations are which God has commanded. This is a laudable question & deserving of a good, sound answer. One legitimate answer might be, “I don’t know, let’s find out together.” However, the wise child does not enquire as to the meaning of these laws & ordinances. The wise child never asks how Judaism affects the soul; this child is only concerned with academics. This child will do anything to satisfy the intellect. But, what about the soul? Is it enough to know when & how to wrap teffilin, or is it just as important to know why - or better yet - to know & experience the affect that wrapping teffilin has on those whom the child loves? Many would claim the latter. To identify a ritual as a loving act connected to family & friends may be the greater inducement for a child to internalize that ritual & make it his or her own.

Of the 4 children, only the “rasha”, the evil child, asks what the meaning of the sacred service is to those whose opinions she or he values most. But the midrash misunderstands the enquiry! Instead of explaining to this child our love for God, our desire to do this service, our sense of place in the world, & our gratitude to God, in short, how we feel - the parable exhorts us to shun the child, to taunt the child, to exclude the child; how sad. By labeling this question as “rasha”, evil, we deny the legitimacy of an emotional, spiritual, & psychologically satisfying Judaism because it deals with feelings & not with facts. We might legitimately ask if a 21st century Judaism can afford such a luxury.

Still, one can imagine a 21st century rasha, an evil child, but today’s rasha would not ask what the meaning of this service is to you; for this enquiry, put in the mouth of the Haggadah’s rasha, is every bit as profound as the questions of the wise child. Today’s “evil”, or contrary child would not even ask a question; nor perhaps, would that child even be found at the seder table. Today’s rasha would make no attempt at all to learn the traditions of his or her ancestors preferring instead to do something entirely non-Jewish: eating chometz on Pesach, not attending services on Shabbat, not fasting on Yom Kippur, & not keeping kosher. Today’s rasha would not even attempt to rationalize his or her actions because those actions, quite simply, do not matter. When confronted or queried about attending services, keeping kosher, family purity, or any issue of Judaism, or religion at all, this modern day rasha will indeed ask a question but that question will be, “Who cares?”

This is the apathy by which the rasha removes himself or herself from the group. Not caring is the denial of the basic principle. And, for this denial, & not the one in the Haggadah, may we taunt the rasha, the evil child, saying to that child, “I care. I care because of what the Eternal did for me on that day when I was redeemed from slavery. You, however, are still a slave to apathy & narrow-mindedness &, therefore, you have not yet been redeemed.” And, in saying, “not yet,” we still hold out hope that 1 day, redemption shall still come about, to the rasha, &, by extension, to all of us as well.

שלום וברכה
-shalom uverakha-
(peace & blessing)
Rabbi Ronald B. Kopelman