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The Four Sons: A Lesson for Parents and Teachers

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With a simple command, God makes clear that teaching is fundamental to our observance of Passover. Fundamental and obligatory. I must teach my son, my children, of the great miracle God performed in delivering me from slavery. Not only must I teach but my teaching must be personal – to me and to my student.

That we should teach children about Pesach makes sense. It is a holiday of children, from the time Pharaoh commanded the midwives, “…look at the birth-stool [of the Hebrew women]; if it is a boy, kill him!”

Pharaoh demanded that each son be cast into the river, and yet the children of Israel multiplied – in numbers and in strength. As did the suffering of the children. The youngest were not shielded from the horrors of slavery, nor were they denied when redemption was at hand. Moshe was clear when he spoke to Pharaoh, seeking the freedom of the people: “We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters.”

It is no accident that we are commanded to “Tell your son on that day…”

But what does it mean to “tell your son”? What does it mean to teach? Too often, as parents and teachers, we think it means talking at our children, delivering to them good and worthy content that they should simply hear and assimilate into their minds and hearts.

Would that it were so. But it is not always so easy to teach our children, as we learn when we gather at the Seder table and read about the four sons; as we find ourselves confronting the daunting challenge that keneged arbaah banim dibrah Torah, not unfairly translated to mean “The words of the Torah are in opposition to four sons.”

It is useful to consider this understanding because it presupposes conflict and discord between Torah and each of the four sons. This presumption of discord tells us less about four sons than about four “postures” toward Judaism, each with its unique challenges and rewards for parents and teachers alike. Each of these postures falls short of full conformity to genuine Torah commitment, each suggests a disconnect between generations, and each demands that we find a way to successfully teach if the beautiful chain of our tradition is to continue.

We associate honor with the chacham, but looking more closely, even the chacham poses a challenge that must be met. Think of the father of these four sons. He is a Jew from the old world. No title. He belongs to no “party.” He identifies with no particular ideological or philo­sophical movement. He is, simply, a Jew. He adheres to nothing other than avodat Hashem and yirat Shamayim. He raises a son, a chacham. His son is wise, and smart, and with eyes to see the brilliance of God’s creation. The son is Orthodox, for sure, but for him simple emunah is not enough. The world is glorious, miraculous. But it also has an intrinsic order and logic, aspects that intrigue and compel him. He is logical and orderly. He has a need to organize mitzvot into divisions and sub-divisions; edot, chukim and mishpatim.

Yes, yes. Of course he believes and observes, but until he understands and digests the content of his belief on an intellectual level, he remains dissatisfied and unfulfilled. “What is the meaning which our God has commanded you?”

Even though we might want to temper the chacham’s need to intellectualize, we recognize his overall positive traits and are only too happy to teach him all of Torah, from the beginning up to and including the very last law of Pesach – afikoman. Moreover, we are assured that as long as the taste of matzah and the flavor of Jewish observance and commitment remain with him, the chacham will continue his search for greater meaning.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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