But still…there are times when a starting point appears impossible to find, when it seems a vain undertaking to effectively communicate Torah values and ideals to the uninitiated, to the cynical, simple, negative youngster and even to the extremely bright student who believes he “knows it all.”
Perhaps part of the trouble is the desire to find a single starting point. Each of the four sons asks profoundly different questions; each is unique in his difference from the others. Doesn’t each deserve an equally individualized response? Yet more and more we provide a cookie cutter one-size-fits-all Torah education, discarding those for whom it does not seem to work.
The Rambam instructs us that each son be taught according to his own understanding and abilities. Yet I would argue that the problem is not just with the student but with the teacher as well. How to motivate the parent or teacher to engage the child who is simple or rebellious?
We are taught there were a total of four zechuyot, four merits, which together added up to the Israelites’ ultimate redemption and exodus from Egypt.
First, there was Zechut Avot, the Merit of the Fathers; “The God of your Fathers appeared to me…” followed by the covenant established with the Fathers – “and God recalled His covenant.”
Then there was the zechut of kabbalat haTorah, the merit of the giving of the Torah. “When you take the nation out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
Finally, they merited redemption on account of the Paschal sacrifice and on account of circumcision – “and I shall see the blood and pass over their houses.”
Rather than judge the posture and presentation of the four sons when they arrive at the Seder table, it would be better to recognize that each arrives with his own zechut and an inherent right to be taught. No Jew is to be shut out of Jewish education. Each son comes to the Seder table with a rightful claim to his share of Sinai.
The simple son leans on his having been equally present and part of Kabbalat haTorah even as the “one who knows not even how to ask” relies on his Zechut Avot. We are so quick to judge the rasha but while it is true that the wicked son may very well have strayed, his claim to the covenant established by God with his fathers is undeniable.
The wise son calls upon all four merits, even if these merits are not as yet perfected in him. It seems then that the challenge of Sipur Yetzitat Mitzrayim is not simply teaching individual sons based on their differences in attitudes, experiences and knowledge.
Yes, such a response goes without saying; the maggid experience requires sensitive, discerning and caring fathers and educators. But the greater challenge is the one that redeems all four sons. The greater challenge is in finding a way to bring each into the greater fold rather than callously discarding them. The greater challenge is in seeking and finding each individual child’s merit, opening avenues of communication with each and every type of student and raising all of them with the love of Torah.
Such an education demands the creativity of the heart, not just the mind. It demands more than “classroom management skills” – it asks us to love and recognize, in those whose behavior and attitude are not what we would want, the nefesh and humanity they possess.
Discovering a child’s abilities is a challenge. Discovering a child’s merits is an accomplishment. But it is our task. “On that day, you shall teach your son…”
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In the Haggadah, each of the four sons poses a question. Yet we find only three responses. The wicked son and the one who “knows not how to ask” are given the same answer.