Shortly after we begin reciting the story of Pesach at the Seder as written in the Haggadah, we are introduced to the “Four Sons.” These individuals represent four very different types of Jews. First showcased is the wise son – he is the child every parent and teacher prays to be blessed with. He is smart, respectful, has a thirst for knowledge and has stayed on the derech of his people. He is curious and asks questions in order to satisfy his quest for knowledge of his heritage. He is called the “good” son.
The second son mentioned happens to also be intelligent, but he is off the derech, and has distanced himself from his family and religious traditions. His arrogant, chutzpadik tone highlights the deep distain he has for the rituals and mores of the Jewish people – a nation that he has deliberately disconnected from. He asks, “What is all this to you?” – his language indicating that he does not include himself. He is referred to as the rasha – the evil one.
The third son gives the impression of being good-natured but is either very young or simple-minded. He is curious about his current environment – the myriad of Pesach preparations – and is curious and asks about it. The Torah states that one should teach each child according to his level, and so the answer to his question is likewise simple and easy to understand. Though he does not necessarily absorb the greater picture and the nuances of Yiddishkeit, he accepts it and identifies with it. He is known as the “simple” son.
The fourth child seems to be oblivious to his surroundings and is described in the Haggadah as not even knowing how to ask. I find that depiction of him rather hard to accept at face value. How is it possible that a person of seemingly normal intelligence (nowhere does it say he is simple) not have the ability to ask a question- to not react and enquire as to the why of the hustle and bustle around him?
I think this “inability” to ask –“she’aino yodea lishol” has nothing to do with intellect and everything to do with extreme narcissism.
There is something very disturbing and peculiar about his total lack of awareness, or what I feel is his all-encompassing aloofness. How is it that he shows zero interest in his surroundings – a complete unmindfulness to the point that he can’t stir himself to even say, “What’s up?” He is pathologically self-absorbed and detached from what is happening.
This behavior is not so uncommon. For example, an elderly, very frail woman is standing on a crowded bus barely able to maintain her balance and not fall. A young, healthy man sits comfortably in front of her. But he does not “know” how to ask, “Excuse me, Ma’am, would you like to sit down?” because he is egocentric and uncaring. The lady is practically in his face – he can’t miss seeing her and her precarious predicament, but he is oblivious and unconcerned.
As I see it, this apathetic, detached individual is much more problematic and disconcerting than his “off the derech” brother. One can reach out to the lost son and possibly bring him back to the fold. With the patience and perseverance of caring individuals, many kids who have fallen off the path have changed their ways and done teshuvah.
The rebellious, disenfranchised child is still emotionally connected – albeit in a negative way. His question may be derogatory in nature, but it is still dialogue. But the fourth son is what I call totally parve – he has no association, no involvement, no relationship with his surroundings.
I imagine the only person this narcissist is interested in is himself. Any activity or event that does not revolve around him does not concern him in the least. That includes Pesach. Despite the tumult that is part and parcel of the holiday, he expresses no curiosity in what is going on. The house has been turned upside-down and inside-out; an elaborate Seder has been prepared with special foods served in an atypical manner, and he doesn’t make the effort to inquire about any of it. He does not know to ask - she’aino yodea lishol – because he is emotionally not there, nor does he care to be, since the holiday is not about him. If the Seder was a celebration of him – if he were the honoree – I am quite confident that he would ask a lot of questions and be on top of every detail.
The inability to ask goes hand in hand with the inability to give. The fourth son cannot comprehend altruistic behavior, like helping and giving of one’s time, effort or money. Receiving is the only concept he understands, as he has a universe-sized sense of entitlement. The attitude is that the world revolves around me and “kimt mir alles” (everything is coming to me). To that end he and those like him are incapable of appreciation. If someone does do them a service, even something as minor as opening the door for them, they do not think a thank you is warranted. After all, they are special and deserve to be treated this way.
They are the husbands who enjoy laundered clothes and delicious meals – but do not thank their wives. Rather if anything isn’t perfect, they are quick to criticize and insult. They are the bosses who will not acknowledge a job well done; they are the men and women who cannot appreciate the efforts and mesirat nefesh of the friend, relative, neighbor or stranger who has gone “the extra mile” on their behalf in whatever endeavor or capacity.
A valuable insight in how to deal with an indifferent, self-absorbed individual (or community) is in the response the Haggadah directs us to give the fourth son. Whereas the simple son is told, “With a strong hand Hashem took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves,” the response to the son who doesn’t “know” how to ask, is, “You open for him, (at pitach loh), as it is written, ‘You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of what Hashem did for me when I came out of Egypt.’”
The key words here are “that Hashem did for me.” For they convey to this oblivious son the concept of an action done on behalf of someone – and appreciation for said action. He is being told that all this effort (preparing for and celebrating Pesach) is hakarat hatov – a show of gratitude, thankfulness and indebtedness – a foreign notion for this young man.
It is quite eye-opening to note that the response begins with, “at ” -the feminine word for “you” and then continues with the male “vehagadita -you shall explain.” Both men and women -all segments of the community – have the responsibility to reach out and try to “turn on” this apathetic, emotionally distant son and turn him into a mentsch.
And ourselves as well.
Sadly, as individuals and a community we are at risk of exhibiting self-absorbed behavior and detachment from issues that don’t affect us personally. It is imperative that we collectively not fall into the tragic category of one “who does not know to ask” and be oblivious to the harsh, soul destroying events and situations befalling less fortunate members of the community – be they the poor, agunot, older singles, or hapless victims of abuse (in all its nefarious incarnations).
We must not remain ignorant, unconcerned or uninvolved, unable to even ask – as the simple son does – “mah zeh? – what is going on?”
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