Photo Credit: Dall-E (Open AI)

When my daughter was a little girl we bought her a beautifully illustrated children’s Haggadah with the hope that its shiny pages and colorful depictions of the Pesach story would keep her up for most of the Seder. I remember thinking that some of the drawings were a little graphic for her young imagination and I was also intrigued by the artist’s portrayal of the four sons. The first three sons were straight out of central casting: the bespectacled chacham, the rasha wearing a purple satin yarmulke, and the slack-jawed tam.

The sh’eino yode’a lishol surprised me a little. Unlike the other sons, who were pictured looking off to the side, this boy was staring straight ahead. His gaze was sad, his eyes empty, his head tilted to one side resting heavily on his hand. As little kids, most of us were taught that the sh’eino yode’a lishol is a child who can’t yet speak, and in the Haggadahs my girls made as children, the picture of the fourth son was always some iteration of a baby or a toddler. But if my daughter noticed that this picture was incongruous with any of her preconceived ideas of what the fourth son should look like, she never said a word; she was too busy ghoulishly savoring the gory photos of the dead Egyptians to be bothered by this detail


The wise son. The wicked son. The simple son. The son who doesn’t know what to ask. It’s interesting to note that in both Hebrew and English the first three sons are encapsulated by a single word, while the fourth son’s description is three Hebrew words with an English counterpart that varies depending on what Haggadah you pick up. As parents and educators, we spend an inordinate amount of time discussing and addressing the wicked son; after all, we need to do everything in our power to keep him in the fold. The son who doesn’t know how to ask is not neglected, but he certainly doesn’t take center stage. He sits there quietly, he is fourth, he is last. He wonders if he will get a turn to speak. He wonders if he even has anything to say. Certainly he can never match his oldest brother’s brilliance, and although sometimes he thinks that his second brother makes some good points, he is afraid of disappointing his parents; he is afraid of disappointing himself. And by the time his parents are done explaining the whole story to his third brother for the umpteenth time, everyone is tired, and so when Tatty looks at him expectantly with bleary eyes and a wrinkled brow he shrugs and allows a tiny fake smile to stretch his lips. “I’m good,” he says.

Who is this child who hides behind his silence?

Perhaps he is merely complacent in his Yiddishkeit. After so many years of learning the same things over and over again, maybe he simply feels he knows it all; what is there to ask? He assumes he has all the answers.

Or maybe he doesn’t know that it’s okay to ask. Maybe he is used to just being a sponge, absorbing everything without question, assuming that every single thing he is told by his rebbeim and teachers and parents is pure gospel. He’s been taught to never question authority, even in a respectful manner, even if he doesn’t understand. Just listen, just do, don’t think.

In the Rabbi Sacks Haggadah there is a chapter called The Art of Asking Questions. “Judaism,” says Rabbi Sacks, “is a religion of questions.” Three times in the Torah Moshe speaks of children asking for explanations of religious practice; these correspond to the first three sons at the seder. In Exodus 13:8, however, it says, “You should tell your child on that day”; this imperative is given to the parents of the child who does not question.

One important role of the Ma Nishtana is to open that dialogue in the form of a series of questions; if a child is questionless, speechless, these four questions provide a way to unlock the silence. It is no coincidence that the language used in reference to the sh’eino yode’a lishol is that of “you shall open for him.” Clearly, this is a child who is sealed shut, who needs something or someone to unlock his voice.

When my daughter was about five, she had trouble falling and staying asleep. Bedtime was highly ritualized, her door had to be open just so and she had to be tucked in with very specific toys arranged in a very specific manner. Even as a small girl she had a tendency to wax philosophical, especially when it was time for bed. One night, about half an hour after she should have been sleeping, her tiny voice rang out in the hallway. “Why is my Bubby dead?”

This was a terrible question that we had no answer for. What made the question even more complex was that she had never actually met this grandmother who had died before she even had a chance to be called Bubby. So my daughter’s question was complicated, and evidently we did not give her the answer she wanted to hear, because every few nights she would ask the question again. We intuited then that this kid would be a lifelong questioner, and in retrospect we were lucky that her true nature was revealed at such a young age.

Not every child is an open book. Who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a kid who consistently won’t share the details of her day or says “fine” to every question you ask. In theory, every child should get the same amount of attention at home and in the classroom, but on a practical level, the quiet kid who does well in school and isn’t acting out will not get the accolades of the chacham or the intense scrutiny and remediation of the simpleton or the kid with the purple satin yarmulke.

The Kotzker rebbe, in his analysis of the Shema, gives us a glimmer of insight into how to begin to approach this fourth child. He comments on the verse in Shema (Deuteronomy 6:6) that says “… and these words that I commanded you today shall be upon your heart.” Why, asks the rebbe, is the commandment to put the words on your heart? Wouldn’t it make more sense to place the words in your heart? We place the words on our hearts and not in our hearts because the heart is not always open and receptive enough to allow the words inside. But if we put the words on top of our hearts and the slightest opening appears, the words will immediately drop in and enter our hearts.

I started to think about this fourth son after I found out that my new grandson was going to be at our Seder this year. As exciting as it is in theory to have the classic sh’eino yode’a lishol at the table, most of us seasoned parents have experienced that mismatch between theory and reality when our overtired, overstimulated sweet little source of nachas behaves like the baby that he is. The mother in me, who is very practical and not interested in dealing with an off-schedule infant, firmly believes that the baby should be put to bed on time so that he can sleep through the entire Seder. The new grandmother in me, however, who possesses the magical wisdom not only of hindsight but also of foresight, believes that although the baby is not capable of articulate thought, he does have the capability through his magical baby powers to absorb ambience, sentiment, and the aura of family tradition. These wordless memories will not be stored in his brain, but rather in the deepest recesses of his tiny heart, in the place where his most primal experiences are rooted.

Two weeks before Pesach I babysat for my grandson. The first few hours were straight out of the Bubby dream book; he played, he drank a bottle, and he communed with nature while being strolled around in his throne by his doting grandmother. His Zaidy came home from work and took over the grandparenting duties. Somewhere during hour three the little guy got tired. Really tired, the kind of tired that needed a nap even though his mommy said, “Don’t let him sleep or he won’t sleep at night.” He was fussy and cranky and it was erev Shabbos, so we bundled him back into his car seat where he promptly fell asleep on his way back to his parents. My balloon of expectations had been popped by the arrow of reality and my magical Bubby wisdom yielded to the unpredictability of real life. Maybe Baby P. will be awake for Kiddush. Maybe not.

Modern commentators talk about a fifth son. This is a son who is not present at the table, either due to assimilation or because he is unborn; he is a wish, a hope, a dream. The fifth child can also be described as the child of broken expectations, a child who disappoints, a child spun of the imagination. How we yearn sometimes that our children would be different, that they would be more like us, or less like us; that they would be frummer, or less frum, or just plain frum. We speak of our children in the possessive, my daughter, my son, my grandson. They are, however, not our possessions. We don’t get to bring them home and polish them off and put them in the breakfront for display. They come to us unformed, but with their own temperaments and predilections; circles can’t be squares and squares can’t be triangles, no matter how hard we try to bend the laws of geometry.

A few days after my babysitting adventures, Baby P. and his parents came over for supper. He had just started eating baby food carrots and we set up our old booster seat so that he could eat supper too. My daughter gave him the first bite, which he slobbered into his mouth eagerly. I took over for bite number two; he was busy fiddling with his bib so he didn’t notice it was me until half a second after he opened his mouth. I finally understood what it meant for a face to crumple. He started crying and fussing and refused to take any more food, not even from my daughter or son-in-law. It took a while to calm him down, and I was disappointed at this epic fail. I realized, however, that our actual sh’eino yode’a lishol had unwittingly provided a possible blueprint for how to handle the fourth son.

Two weeks before this carrot debacle Baby P.’s parents had tried to feed him cereal and he rejected it. Who knows why he refused it, maybe he wasn’t developmentally ready to eat, maybe the taste offended his baby palette, maybe the texture was weird. So what do they do? They didn’t give up and say, “Oh, this baby just doesn’t know how to eat and he never will”; they waited a few weeks and tried a new tactic – carrots. He loved the carrots, but that seemingly only applied in own high chair and only in his own house, and only fed to him by his mommy or daddy; not by his Bubby and not in her house. He didn’t say a word, and yet everyone figured out what he needed, what he wanted.

It’s cute and tolerable when it’s a baby; it’s less cute and less tolerable when it’s an older child who can’t or won’t communicate. The basic strategy is similar though; time, patience, persistence, and most of all, unconditional love.

When our children are babies, we pray for mundane miracles. Please G-d, let him smile, swallow, crawl. We marvel at their burgeoning personalities and their quirky mannerisms. We send them to school and pray that the teachers don’t confuse their reticence with apathy or their brash inquisitiveness with insolent scorn. We swallow our disappointment when the child that we raised to walk in our footsteps is burdened with shoes that don’t fit.

Somewhere along the way, someone attaches a label to your kid, a label whose adhesive is so sticky that its residue lasts for a lifetime. Smart, rebellious, simpleton. And then there is the child, your child, so precious, so complex that words fail to convey his essence. But you are a mother, a father, a special teacher; you see something in this child that no one else can. You shower him with words and with love and with the patience of someone who remembers his joyful toothless smiles and that time when his heart was still open and waiting to be filled. You are hopeful that one day the right word or the right tune or the right gentle touch on the shoulder will be the one to pierce his armor and allow all those words that have been piling up on his heart’s surface to rush in and banish his silence. And once again you pray that maybe, just maybe, this night will be different than all the other nights.

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Dr. Chani Miller is an optometrist and writer who lives in Highland Park, N.J., with her family. She is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.