When did you last experience freedom? For many of us, burdened by our jobs, our familial and social responsibilities, and the other entanglements of the human state, freedom seems as rare as it is essential, as elusive as it desirable. We want it, we need it, yet how do we achieve it?
But look at the child. Observe him at play, immersed in a favorite book, asleep and smiling at his dreams. Assured that father and mother will feed him, protect him, and worry about all that needs worrying about, the child is free. Free to revel in his inner self, free to grow and develop, open to the joys and possibilities of life.
This is why Passover, the festival of freedom, is so much the festival of the child. For it is the child who evokes in us the realization that we, too, are children of G-d, and are thus inherently and eternally free. It is the child who opens our eyes to the ultimate significance of Passover: that in taking us out of Egypt to make us his chosen people, G-d has liberated us of all enslavement and subjugation for all time.
The child is thus the most important participant at the Passover seder. Many of the seder customs are specifically designed to mystify the child, to stimulate his curiosity, to compel him to ask: Mah nishtanah halailah hazeh… “Why is this night different from all other nights?” For the entire Haggadah, the “telling” of the story of our redemption from Egypt at the seder, is built around the concept of “When your child shall ask you… You shall tell your child.” On Passover, we want to enter the child’s mind, to view reality from his perspective. For how else could we taste freedom?
But children, as every parent will attest, come in many shapes and forms. A closer examination of the Torah’s discussion of the seder dialogue reveals several versions of the child’s questions and the parent’s response. The Haggadah explains that “the Torah is addressing itself to four sons: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.” Depending on how (and if) the child articulates his question, the Torah offers four different approaches to explaining the message of the festival and the significance of our freedom.
The “wise son” asks intelligent, well-structured questions that reflect the thoroughness of his observations and his desire to know, appreciate and participate. The proud father responds with a detailed explanation of the seder observances from beginning to end, all the way to the law that “one should not serve up any dessert after the meat of the Passover offering,” so that its taste should linger in our mouths long after the seder.
The “wicked son,” observing the labor and expense that go into the making of the seder, asks: “Whatever for is this work of yours?” “This work of yours,” notes the Haggadah—this is something he wants no part of himself. “This is because of what G-d did for me,” replies the father in kind, “when I left Egypt.” “For me… when I left Egypt” implying, explains the Haggadah, that “had he (the wicked child) been there, he would not have been redeemed.”
To the “simple son,” who can manage only a lame “What is this?,” the father responds with an appropriately elementary explanation of the night’s significance. And to the father of “the son who does not know how to ask,” the Torah instructs: “Tell your child.” You initiate the discussion; you prod him into conversation and participation.
There and Here
Of the above responses, our answer to the “wicked son” begs clarification. Why do we tell him that he would have been left behind in Egypt at the time of the Exodus?
Factually, this was indeed the case. Our sages tell us that only one out of five Jews departed Egypt for Sinai on the first Passover. The other four-fifths refused to leave, preferring slavery to Pharaoh over commitment to G-d. These Jews were not redeemed. For though G-d accepted the Jews in Egypt as they were, despite their lowly spiritual station after two centuries of enslavement to the most debased society on earth, there was one condition: one had to desire freedom in order to deserve it.
Still, what is to be gained by telling the wicked son that “had he been there, he would not have been redeemed”? Do we want to further alienate an already alienated child?
In truth, however, our response to the wicked son is not a message of banishment and rejection, but one of acceptance and promise. Had he been there, we tell him, he would not have been redeemed. The Exodus from Egypt was before the revelation at Sinai, before G-d chose each and every Jewish child as His own. There, in Egypt, redemption was a matter of individual choice. Had he been there, he would still be there. But he was not there—he is here.
“Here” is after Sinai. Here, free is what we are rather than something that we might elect or decline to be. True, we are currently in exile, but “on that day,” prophesies Isaiah, “you will be gathered up one by one, O children of Israel.” When G-d shall again come to redeem us, not a single Jew will be left behind.
The Fifth Child
As different as they may be, the “four sons” of the Haggadah have one thing in common: whether involved, challenging, inept or indifferent, they are all present at the seder table. They are all relating, albeit in vastly differing ways, to our annual reliving of the Exodus and our birth as a nation. The line of communication is open; the potential “wise son” that resides within every Jewish child is approachable.
Today, however, in our era of spiritual displacement, there exists a fifth child: the Jew who is absent from the seder table. He asks no questions, poses no challenges, displays no interest. For he knows nothing of the seder, nothing of the significance of the Exodus, nothing of the revelation at Sinai at which we assumed our mission and role as Jews.
To these children of G-d we must devote ourselves long before the first night of Passover. We must not forget a single Jewish child; we must invest all our energies and resources to bringing every last “fifth son” to the seder-table of Jewish life.
. Exodus 13:8, 14.
. See Deuteronomy 6:20, Exodus 12:26, 13:8, and 13:14.
. Deuteronomy, loc. cit.
. Today, the same law applies to the afikoman, the matzah eaten at the end of the meal in commemoration of the Passover offering.
. Exodus 12:26.
. Ibid. 13:8.
. Ibid., v. 14.
. Ibid. v. 8.
. Rashi, Exodus 13:18.
. Isaiah 27:12.
. Addressed to “our brethren the Jewish people, and all educators in particular.”
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XI, p. 2; Igrot Kodesh, vol. XV, pp. 33-34.