The Four Children
By Maya Wax Cavallaro
At this point in the seder, it is traditional to discuss the “four sons,” four types of children to whom the Torah alludes: the wise (cha-cham), the wicked (rasha), the simple (tam), and the one who does not know enough to ask (sheaynu yodayah l’shol). What is the purpose of this tradition? Where do these labels come from and what is the meaning behind them?
We learn from the Torah and from life that people are diverse, with different learning styles and different ways of viewing the world. Each person’s unique lived experiences color the way they approach and interact with the Passover story and Jewish tradition. The Four Children is a reminder that we must teach this story to all types of learners. We must try to understand our differences and make the story accessible and available to everyone.
Let us take a look at the four traditional archetypes and think about each character.
The wise child asks:
“What are the rulings, the laws, and traditions that Adonai our God has commanded us?”
We are told that we should thoroughly explain all of the Passover observances to this child. This may be true, but simply learning a list of rules is easy for this child. We must teach them to think critically, to question the rules and apply the concepts outside of the seder context. We must teach them to think of the other children and to use their gifts and their privilege to help others.
This is the child who excels in school—who feels confident speaking up and being heard. We are proud of this child and celebrate them, but we must also remember that this is only one type of intelligence. Many brilliant children are unable to find their voices, and they, too, deserve love and praise. Which children tend to get labeled as gifted? What roles do race and socioeconomic status play? We live in a society that expects some children to succeed and others to fail. We give some the benefit of the doubt while others hardly get a chance.
Why does the wise child feel the need to excel? Are we putting too much pressure on them? Is this child trying to control their academic life because they feel powerless in other areas? We must remember to show the wise child that we value them for more than just their achievements.
The wicked child asks:
“What is this service to you?”
We are told that by saying “to you” and not “to us” this child is cutting themself off from the community and rejecting our traditions. In the past, we have told this child that if they had been there, in the land of Egypt, they would not have been redeemed. This response is not acceptable. We must learn to take responsibility.
How does a child become “wicked?” Children are not wicked. If this child does not feel a part of the community, it is because the community has failed to include them. Children may act out in response to trauma or neglect. This child may be hiding deep insecurities under a mask of indifference or mischief. The wicked child is very important tonight. We must teach them that this is their story, too. How can we speak to this child with love? How can we make them feel wanted? Who do we, as a society, tend to label as “bad” children? How can we do better? We should respect this child’s experiences and their anger, and look at where we have missed the mark and how we can do better.
The simple child asks:
“What is this?”
To this child we are meant to respond, “With a mighty hand God freed us from Egypt, from the house of bondage.” We include this child by saying “us,” so they may come to learn that this is their story. We keep our answer simple.
What do we mean by simple though? Is this child simple because of age? Perhaps this is their first introduction to the story of Passover or to their Jewishness.
Who else do we call simple? Perhaps this child has a different learning style or a mind or body that works differently from our own. Maybe the child is learning a new language and does not yet have the proficiency for complicated discussions. Do these make someone simple? We should be careful with the labels we attach to people.
This child reminds us that we must make the story accessible to everyone. That means we must teach this story in different ways to different children.
The one unable to ask:
For the child unable to ask, we are told to start with ourselves;, as it is written, “You shall tell your child on that day, saying ‘This is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”
This reminds us to lead by example. If we make this silent child feel welcome and show them what Passover means to us, we might awaken in them a desire to learn and to join in.
It is important, however, to think about why a child may be unable to ask. Is this child silent because of fear? Like acting out, shutting down is frequently a response to trauma. Have we as a community failed to protect this child? Have we failed to teach them that their voice matters? Which children fall through the cracks in our society? Whose questions are we failing to hear?
Today, children are locked up in detention centers, separated from their families and silenced. Children are trying to attend school and help their families navigate new lives in a second or third or fourth language. Children are hungry and cold and afraid. Children have secrets and pain. Leading by example is simply not enough! We need to take action to give these children a voice.