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Tailored Torah

While the Seder is about transmitting memories and identity to our children, the Haggadah wisely acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all for education, suggesting a tailored approach to respond to each child.

When the wise son asks what the reasons behind our observance are, we give part of an answer, just a law really – אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן. The Sfas Emes explains that the starting point of observance is that the Torah is ours, and this is what the law requires. There needn’t be a loftier reason than that!

And yet, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch quipped that if you perform symbolic acts without bothering to understand the symbolism, you wind up doing a bunch of strange things for literally no reason at all.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that we engage with the wise son and stimulate his thinking. There are so many reasons for the things we do, and people are drawn to different explanations. So we tell him the law without a reason; there is no single reason, and he can seek out ideas he finds meaningful. But the reasons are secondary to why we choose to be observant.

To the wicked son, the Haggadah offers an incredibly harsh rebuke – blunt his teeth and remind him that if he’d been in Egypt, he never would have left – הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.

The Haggadah doesn’t label this child wicked for his actions, beliefs, or observance levels; only because he doesn’t identify with the Jewish people – לְפִי שֶׁהוֹצִיא אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל כָּפַר בְּעִקָּר. The Yismach Yisrael of Alexander notes that over and above religious activity, identifying with the Jewish people is the main thing here; that is why there was an Exodus and why we have a Seder – זֶה has a numerological value of 12 – as in the twelve tribes of Israel. Subtracting from twelve kicked off the whole Egypt experience when Yosef’s brothers tried to eliminate him! 

R’ Shlomo Freshwater observes that before Sinai, people who lost their way tended not to find their way back, for example, the generation of the Flood story, Yishmael, and Esav, among many others. He might not have been so lucky if he’d lived in that era – אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל. But fortunately, we live in a post-Sinai era where we can always make amends.

The Haggadah says to blunt his teeth; our parents’ generation might have taken this literally, but it’s not necessarily as harsh as it seems.

As far as blunting his teeth, it is famously noted that רשע has a numerological value of 570. Subtract שניו, numerological value 366, and the result is 204, the numerological value of צדיק. Behind the cutesy numbers game lies a profound truth. Some children harbor bitterness, negativity, and resentment. Neutralize the bite and dig past the surface; a wonderful person is waiting to be recognized.

The simple son can’t get past shallow simplicity, asking “what” rather than “why?”. His innocent curiosity is pure and wholesome, not naïve, but rather in a constant state of wonderment. The Haggadah cautions us not to talk down to him, but to answer on his level, to patiently explain the answer in a way he can process.

The Haggadah suggests what to say to each son except the son who doesn’t know how to ask; the Haggadah says to give him an opening – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ. R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that creating an opening means cultivating a space for curiosity – the entire Seder is full of strange customs and rituals to help do just that. The most beautiful and profound speech won’t matter to someone who doesn’t get it, but it is also possible to nurture with silence – חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ.

Whatever challenges the wise, wicked, simple, and quiet child may pose, at least they are at the Seder. They’re present and engaged in different ways, and we can work with that. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wonders if a fifth son isn’t in the Haggadah or at the Seder because everyone has given up on him; everyone deserves a place at the table.

As the Sfas Emes reminds us, the Haggadah acknowledges and welcomes the presence of all types of children and has something unique to say to each.

We can recognize these archetypes in our friends and family, but we may even recognize them in ourselves at different phases of our lives. So take the Haggadah’s advice to heart. Don’t be rigid; know yourself, know your audience, and tailor your message accordingly.