Hagaada 5778

Hagaada: Who Knows Four?  (Sons, That Is)

Let us contemplate one of the central themes of the Pesach seder, the parable of the four sons.  How do we engage all types of people – chacham (wise), rasha (wicked), tam (commonly understood as simple) and she’eino yodeya lishol (ignorant)?

It has been cited in the name of great and holy men that these “four sons” are in fact conceptual archetypes rather than four real, living, distinct individuals.  Indeed, it is extremely rare, even impossible, to find pure examples of these types in real life.  Were the Four Sons meant to represent real people, the tradition would most likely have identified individuals of note who personified each of them.  The fact is that all these aspects are present in everyone to a greater or lesser extent.

The question is how to know each “son,” or each aspect, within ourselves.  For each, we ask, mah hu omer “what does he say?”  We can also interpret this question as “what is he really saying?” or what is the real message of this aspect of ourselves?

Each of us is at times wise, wicked, naive, or totally clueless.  We have to address these disparate aspects of our personae that in total manifest the individuals that we are.  We have to get all these incongruent aspects of our personality to join and participate in the Seder as one.  In order to accomplish this we must acknowledge these distinct, yet unequal, parts within ourselves and motivate each to be involved in the Seder experience.  However, it must be understood that one answer is not going to suffice for each of our characteristics, especially so if the answer is formulistic, a catechism if you will.

The Rambam [1] [2] alludes to a unique attribute of the Jewish people as follows.  He explains the words of the Gemarah [3] in regard to gittin (divorce) ‘kofin oso ad sheyomar rotzeh ani’ – the charge to the Jewish court system to compel someone to abide by the court’s decision through “forcing him until he says, ‘I fully consent.’“  This power of the courts seems to violate an elementary principle of the get, namely [4] that the man divorces his wife willingly.  Any type of coercion invalidates the process.

The Rambam’s famous answer to this quandary is that the innate character of every Jew is to do the right thing.  The Court merely assists him to act on his own to do what he knows in his heart is the right thing.  Halachah maintains, in these instances, that it may take a series of lashes to the body to bring good judgment to the mind.

The Court can be satisfactorily assured that after a few lashes the Jew becomes sufficiently “motivated” to remove the yetzer hara (evil inclination) from his subconscious and do the right thing.  He is now ready to perform a meritorious task which, were it not for the impediment of an evil impulse, he would have been willing to do all along.

Where does this special trait of “wanting to do what’s right” come from?

Each and every Jew has, within himself, the traits and capabilities of our forefathers as the Medrash says [5] “Maseh avos siman labanim” (the actions of our forefathers are sigsn for what is to come onto their descendants).

Our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov comprise the foundation upon which is constructed the ethos of our people.  What they achieved became part of our spiritual and physical inclinations.  Each one of them developed and excelled in a different area of understanding Hashem and His world.  And that legacy is passed on to this very day.  The forefathers are the source of every Jew’s inner self being good no matter the circumstance.

I would like to suggest that three of the four sons are symbolic of the three Avos – forefathers:

Avraham is symbolic of the שאינו יודע לשאול (The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask).  Avraham Avinu was not raised by a G-d fearing father, nor was his surrounding influences conducive to belief in monotheism.  As a result, his knowledge of Hashem was only known to him through thorough searching until he was fully convinced that there was a Creator and Proprietor of the world [6].  Avraham was the first to recognize, with absolute clarity, the existence of the One Creator of the universe and that He is the source of all existence.

Avraham presented his vision to mankind and assured them that this clarity of vision lies within everyone’s reach.  A person need only search within himself and he will find it there.  For all succeeding generations these things were clear as well, and that clarity is deeply embedded within ourselves.  Some understand this as the concept of zechus avos/the merits of the forefathers, meaning that Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov instilled within their descendants those traits and values that remain with us until this very day.

In medieval times some rabbis debated the issue – whether it is more worthy to gain a profound and esoteric understanding of the existence of Hashem through Chakirah (philosophic inquiry) or to simply have Emunah Peshutah (simple faith).

That is, should one strive to the utmost that one’s intellect can grasp?  Or, simply believe based on simple faith in what is written in the Torah and the fact that it was passed down to us from father to son through the ages – a continuous unbroken chain beginning at Har Sinai.

This weighty discussion is way above our pay grade.  Nevertheless, the majority of achronim (rabbis of our more recent past) understood that, at least as far as their generations were concerned, the more preferable path is that of Emunah Peshutah (simple or blind faith, as it were).

To them, Emunah Peshutah was the course where the benefits outweighed the risks of placing our age-old value system in jeopardy.  They agreed that the ancient Rabbis were more intellectually gifted than they were.  They were capable of raising the most probing questions and reaching conclusions that agreed with those reached by our forefathers by the sheer power of their mental acumen.

The Rabbis of the later generations were less confident in their intellectual prowess.  They worried that they might not gain the correct understanding when delving into areas of faith through Chakirah (intellectual deliberation).

Indeed, simple logic dictates that we should shun this approach, for what advantage is there to be gained in Chakirah?

Suppose for a moment that the ancient Jewish philosophers, with their thorough scrutiny, had not been able to fully comprehend as they did or, heaven forbid, they would have misunderstood.  Would it be excusable for them to not believe in the existence of Hashem?  Certainly not!  A heretic is not absolved for his sin because his intellect led him astray.  To accept such a premise would be to allow any bad behavior, however perverse, simply because the perpetrator believed in it.  And since I am morally bound by established Jewish law regardless of where intellectual exercises lead me, what is the benefit in analyzing a matter which, either way, I am not at liberty to do as my poor wisdom dictates?

Pursuant to the above, since Avraham had no Mesorah (historical tradition) upon which to base his faith, one might assume that Avraham only had the lesser level of faith, one based on his own understanding and not the superior level of Emunah Peshutah (simple faith).  If this indeed was the case, how can it be expected of us to attain this higher level of belief?  If our faith is a continuum of that attained by Avraham, our forefather, how can we aspire to that which he could not endow us, simple faith which he himself seemingly lacked?

It can be suggested that Avraham actually did gain this level of faith through the incident of kivshan haEish (being cast into the burning furnace and being saved miraculously through Hashem’s grace).  Since this was not a logical development, it was evident to him that there are things we cannot fathom and understand about Hashem’s wondrous ways.  Yet we still must believe.  This too, is part and parcel of Avraham’s legacy.

We should understand that although Avraham came to his belief on his own, nonetheless the bottom line is that he believed in Hashem without question, without inquiry, as if he were one that does not even begin to know what to ask.

Although the illustrations in Hagaadahs often depict the Tam as a foolish and inane looking man, the text explains that the Tam is neither wise nor evil.  This actually is not the true meaning.  The Tam is actually one who is whole, complete, or perfect.  This correlates to Yaakov, as the pasuk [7] states, ויעקב איש תם ישב אהלים (but Yaakov was a wholesome man – “tam” – abiding his tents).

Yitzchock is the wise son as stated in the Medrash quoted by the Maaseh Hashem [8].  The Avnei Nezer [9] quoted by his son the Shem Mishmuel [10] suggests an explanation for the Torah’s narrative of Yitzchok’s well-digging activities and what significance it has for us, based on the pasuk [11], “מים עמוקים עצה בלב איש ואיש תבונות ידלנה” (Deep waters are in the heart of a man and an understanding person will draw them out).

The Chovos Halivavos [12] teaches that there are deep waters in each of us, but just like deep well water is covered by the earth so too the deep waters of our inner powers are hidden from others and from ourselves.  A wise person knows that these inner powers are there, and is able to uncover them and draw them out when needed.

The inner wisdom possessed by each of us in our hearts and minds is waiting to be uncovered.  This is the inner dimension of well-digging, and the influence our father Yitzchak has on us: the coarseness of our exterior does not have to hide the inner wisdom and counsel present within a Jew.

The fourth and final son, the wicked son, is our very own ego as the pasuk [13] tells us ”כי יצר לב האדם רע מנעוריו” (since the design of man’s heart is evil from his youth).  This part of ourselves we owe only to ourselves.  It is not a glorious legacy passed on to us.  We own this trait completely.  And, to add insult to injury, our egoism tries to hide our self-awareness of our other three parts that we have inherited from our forefathers.

Now it is all these four parts of ourselves that we wish to inspire on the Seder night – that they should all work in unison to bring us closer to the service of Hashem.

Good Shabbos and May we all merit to a kosher and happy Pesach.

[1] Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (“Maimonides”) 1135-1204.
[2] Rambam Hilchos Geirushin (Laws of Divorce) 2:20
[3] See tractate Eiruchin 21A
[4] Tracatae Yevamos 112B
[5] See Tanchuma Lech Lecha 9
[6] See Medrash, Bereishes Rabbah 39:1
[7] Bereishes (Genesis) 25:27
[8] Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi (1512–1585)
[9] Rabbi Avraham Borenstain (1838–1910) was a leading posek in late-nineteenth-century Europe and founder of the Sochatchover Chasidic dynasty.  He is known as the Avnei Nezer after the title of his posthumously-published set of halachic responsa which is widely acknowledged as a halakhic classic.
[10] Rabbi Shmuel Borenstain (1855–1926), he was the second Rebbe of the Sochatchov Chasidic dynasty.  His teachings are recorded in the Shem Mishmuel a nine-volume collection of homiletical teachings on the Torah and Jewish holidays.
[11] Mishlei (Proverbs) 20:5
[12] Rabeinu Bachyaibn Paquda (he lived at Zaragoza, Spain, during the first half of the eleventh century.).
[13] Bereishis (Genesis) 8:21