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The Four Sons of the Haggadah
The rebbe was plagued by mice.
The mice were eating his books,
and nothing could dissuade them.
He searched in vain for a deterrent.
Until, reading the Shulkhan Arukh,
he came across the statutes governing Passover.
The Shulkhan Arukh unequivocally states
that nothing may be eaten after the afikomen.
So the rebbe crumpled the afikomen
and sprinkled the crumbs over his books.
But the mice were smarter than the rebbe;
first they ate the Shulkhan Arukh,
then they ate the afikomen,
and then they ate his books.
—As told by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner
In the section of the Passover Haggadah called “The Four Sons,” we find “What are the laws, the ordinances and the rulings which Hashem has commanded us?”
The answer being, “You should inform this child of all the laws of Pesach, including the ruling that nothing should be eaten after the afikomen.”
Passover Haggadah, the Feast of Freedom, the Rabbinical Assembly.
The wise child asks for information, and, in my Haggadah, he receives information, humor, which is to say, welcome to his tradition. His desire to learn and participate is rewarded with love—the other sons present their requests as if information were going to cure them of their anomie. Estrangement, hurt, rancor, alienation from the world, can, in the other-than-wise, be misinterpreted as, and assigned to, a failure of their tradition.
The second of the four sons, the wicked child, asks “What does this ritual mean to you?”
He is wicked in that his question is rhetorical—it is not even a request for information; it is an assault.
The wicked Jewish child removes himself from his tradition, and sets up as a rationalist and judge of those who would study, learn, and belong. Here is a joke for him.
The Minsker apikoros met the Pinsker apikoros. “I challenge your claim to preeminence,” said the Minsker; “defend your excellence as an apikoros.
“I’m not sure I believe in God,” said the Pinkser.
“I’m not sure I believe in God,” replied the Minsker. “And I eat pork, I work on Shabbos, and I never go to shul.”
“You aren’t an apikoros,” said the Pinsker. “You’re a goy.”
The third son is the simple son, who asks simply, “Ma Hu?” or “What is this?”
We are told to tell him, “It is with a mighty hand that Hashem took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
A borscht belt joke: Why did the Jews wander forty years in the desert? Because they wouldn’t ask directions.
This is good, accurate ethnic humor; but it is not true that the Jews wandered forty years. They spent five weeks journeying between the Sea of Reeds and the Jordan River. Where Moses sent out the scouts. The scouts returned and said that the giants inhabited the land, that the scouts looked to themselves as grasshoppers and that they felt that so they must seem in the eyes of the giants.
Rabbi Finley teaches that this sin, of lack of faith, this inability to change, kept the Israelites in the desert, until God saw that the generation of the desert had died off, that time had killed the sin of acceptance of Slavery.
A new generation had been born that had never seen Egypt, and these people were educable and simple enough to ask, “What is this?”
The fourth child is he who does not know how to ask. For him, one is supposed to open the discussion.
To the wicked son, who asks, “What does all this mean to you?” To the Jews who, in the sixties, envied the Black Power Movement; who, in the nineties, envied the Palestinians; who weep at Exodus but jeer at the Israel Defense Forces; who nod when Tevye praises tradition but fidget through the seder; who might take their curiosity to a dogfight, to a bordello or an opium den but find ludicrous the notion of a visit to the synagogue; whose favorite Jew is Anne Frank and whose second-favorite does not exist; who are humble in their desire to learn about Kwanzaa and proud of their ignorance of Tu Bi’Shvat; who dread endogamy more than incest; who bow the head reverently at a baptism and have never attended a bris—to you, who find your religion and race repulsive, your ignorance of your history a satisfaction, here is a book from your brother.