At this year’s Passover seder, we are all the son who does not know how to ask

By Student Rabbi Remy Liverman

As we begin the Hebrew month of Nisan and prepare to celebrate Passover, never before has a discussion about plagues and a deep cleaning of our homes felt more relevant.

These strange and challenging times of COVID-19 would seem to take precedence over holidays. But there is so much we can learn from the seder, both in ritual and narrative.

We ask the Four Questions in Ma Nishtana: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Moreover, we have the four children — the wise child, or chacham, the wicked child (rasha), the simple child (tam) and the child who does not know how to ask (sh’eyno yodea lishol).

Each of the sons taken from separate sections in the Book of Exodus is meant to represent a different perspective of the Passover story.

The Four Questions offer insight into our ancestors

The Four Questions show us the importance of understanding the tale of our ancestors as more than a single linear story. Here is a refresher as we prepare for the Passover seder:

  1. The wise child asks details about the specific meaning of the laws of Passover observance: “What are the testimonies, the statutes and laws which Adonai our God has commanded you?” To which we respond with one of the very specific laws of the Passover seder.
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  3. The wicked child asks, “Whatever does this mean to you?” The authors admonish this child as one who is not concerned about the laws personally, but only for others. This exchange reminds us of the importance of refusing to separate ourselves from our community or from traditions that might seem uncomfortable or foreign to us. Rather, we must engage in ways that help us connect with our community.
  4. The simple child asks, “What does this mean?” To which a straightforward summary of the story is given, directly from the Torah: “It was with a mighty hand that God brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Exodus 13:14).
  5. In response to the child who does not know how to ask, we are instructed to “open it up” and explain, “It is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).

Consider the Four Sons in present terms

In response to our current plight, I considered how these sons are represented in contemporary society.

There is the wise child, who asks complex and high-level questions. This child is the one who sits at the “adult’s table”, asking about the prayers we recite and our traditions.

Today, the “adults” may be the doctors, scientists, politicians, social advocates; those who are asking crucial questions and developing new research to help ease our global state of emergency.

Today, the “adults” may be the doctors, scientists, politicians, social advocates; those who are asking crucial questions and developing new research to help ease our global state of emergency.

They ask not how long we need to stay inside, but what critical measures do we need to help our most vulnerable community members.

The wicked child is depicted through selfish questions about worship and God.

For the wicked child, all that God has done, God has done for them. While evil and iniquity took many forms in rabbinic times and in our modern world, it is a heavy statement to declare the wicked one only thinks of himself.

Take care of yourself but take only what you need

During this global health crisis, we must take care of ourselves, but we also must not take more than we need. Nor should we act without thinking of the implications of those actions on others around us. Selfishness during this time of crisis places others’ lives at risk.

The simple child is the one who asks, “what does this mean?”.

We answer this question throughout the seder when we pick up each item on the table and explain its symbolism.

We should approach information without assumption or accepting a single perspective or gathering our news from one familiar source.

We should approach information the same way today, without assumption or accepting a single perspective or gathering our news from one familiar source.

For everything from medical news and statistics to the manner in which we utilize technology, we should reflect on questions and uncertainty with openness and patience and the willingness to accept there is so much we don’t know at this time.

What questions do we ask and how do we adjust to a new normal?

Finally, we have the son who does not know how to ask. We are all there now with the fourth son in some way, regardless of expertise or prior knowledge of pandemics.

Even the most knowledgeable among us experiences shock as we struggle to make sense of this “new normal”.

What questions do we ask and how do we adjust? We are wired to seek control and the sad reality is we have little control now over this global challenge.

The situation is unlike anything we have ever faced we will continue to absorb information, answering questions we may never previously have thought to ask.

This may represent our greatest mental challenge. What questions do we ask and how do we adjust? We are wired to seek control and the sad reality is we have little control now over this global challenge.

Accepting that we need to take a breath and move forward one day at a time will help soothe our minds and spirits.

The constant search for information and resultant worry can be overwhelming. In response, accepting that we need to take a breath and move forward one day at a time will help soothe our minds and spirits.

Remember that worry is prayer for what you don’t want. This doesn’t mean letting go of helpful measures, but rather accepting that we may move forward gently and with compassion for others, listening with a curious and sympathetic ear to those who ask the questions we don’t know to ask — or answer.

Respect everyone’s personal struggle

At this year’s seder, we must invite all four sons to the table. Welcome each personality and respect everyone’s individual struggle.

As we join together for our virtual Seder, we ask, as is our tradition: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

Let us pay careful attention to the fourth son, who is silent. He deserves our attention this year more than ever.

The best answer I can offer is we truly do not know why. Every night in recent months has been different. Our circumstances change rapidly.

So, let us invite all archetypes of the four sons, in recognition of their complex characters.

Most importantly, let us pay careful attention to the fourth son, who is silent. He deserves our attention this year more than ever. Let us not ignore him, for he lives within each of us, and none of us deserves to be ignored.

Student Rabbi Remy Liverman will serve United Hebrew Congregation throughout the 2019-20 academic year.

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