Pesach: Why Does the 4 Questions Have Only 1 Question? – By Ben

Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot?

The treasured moment of the Passover Sedar where the youngest child sings a song about asking the 4 Questions. He/she probably doesn’t really care about what they’re asking, but is more concerned with not messing up the song. The family watches, too enchanted by the singing to realize that something’s odd. The song goes like this…

Why is this night different from all other nights?

On all other nights we eat leavened bread and matzah, and on this night only matzah.
On all other nights we eat all vegetables, and on this night only bitter herbs.
On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, and on this night we dip twice.
On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night we only recline.

It’s not 4 questions, but 1 question and 4 answers. But another odd thing is why are these the 4 answers? There are lots of things different about Passover. Four cups of wine. Hunting for the afikomen. Staying up till 2 am retelling the story of the Exodus. Why are these the 4 answer given? I’ll come back to this idea. But before I do, let’s talk about another special 4.

4 Answers for 4 Boys

4 sons.jpg

In the Haggadah (the one part prayer book, one part story book, and one part schedule for the evening) it discusses the four types of children at the Seder table. The Wise Son, the Wicked Son, the Simple Son, and the Son Who Doesn’t Know How To Ask. It tells of how they approach the Exodus story and it tells how a parent should treat each respective child.

But what is not so well known is that the 4 answers from above are actually the 4 mindsets of each son. All four are asking the same question, but each is asking it from their own perspective.

The Wise Son

wise son

On all other nights we eat leavened bread and matzah, and on this night only matzah.

What is a wise person? Is it just someone who knows a ton of stuff? We all know someone who is books smart but still “doesn’t get it.” And now with the internet we all have the world of information at our fingertips. But would you consider the hundreds of people scrolling through their iPhones wise? Probably not. A wise person isn’t necessarily full of knowledge, but they seek knowledge.  They want to understand. And they want know what life is about.

So when the Wise Son sees the matzah instead of the bread, the thought goes through his head, “If we’re supposed to be free, why are we eating the bread of slavery?” (The wise son didn’t read last week’s blog post.) He notices a contradiction and then wants to know why it is so. One of the best ways to learn wisdom is to notice contradictions. Then, not just stop by pointing them out, but instead figuring out how that contradiction reveals a deeper truth. “On Shabbat you’re supposed to rest, but you have to walk everywhere? Tell me, how is that resting?”

The Wicked Son

wicked

On all other nights we eat all vegetables, and on this night only bitter herbs.

Of all the things to ask about on Pesach, the Wicked Son focuses on what is bitter. The Seder has stories and games, delicious dinner and dessert. He doesn’t ask about those. He fixates on the maror. I’m not saying it’s bad to talk and ask about unpleasant or difficult things. But where the Wise Son would ask to understand it, perhaps find a solution to it, the Wicked Son ends at the question. “There’s something that seems bad or wrong or archaic? The whole system must be flawed.” Instead of trying to find answers, he mocks and is cynical. And then uses it as a reason to excuse himself from responsibility.

The Simple Son

rotary5n-3-web

On all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, and on this night we dip twice.

This son in Hebrew is known as Tam. Tam is usually translated as simple, but that’s not really accurate. The word actually means complete. In the Torah, Jacob is known as tam. And he was by no means simple. He was at peace and full of truth.  He was able to look at the world with a sense of wonder. Maybe he was a little naive. And the Simple Son is too.

But the problem is that the Simple Son walks through life with that sense of wonder but isn’t bothered. Not responding to contradictions or bitterness. He just continues to go through life. Living his day, one after another.

Until there’s a shake up.

God forbid, he loses a parent or his job. Everything comes to a screeching halt and he, for the first time in ages, thinks deeper. “What is going on?” “What is my life about?” That’s why his question is about the dipping. It takes something so unusual to jolt him awake.

The Son Who Doesn’t Know How To Ask 

ein yodeah

On all other nights we eat sitting or reclining, and on this night we only recline.

Finally we have the Son Who Doesn’t Know How To Ask. This child is like the Simple Son, going through life, minding his own business. But when the jolt hits him, he doesn’t even notice it. He doesn’t wake up. He’s given up trying to be a part of the game, no matter what. And so what this Son notices is the reclining. Going to sleep.

Who are you?

As we live our lives we go through all four of these perspectives. Most of us are probably most often like the Simple Son, focusing on just getting by. Eventually we are hit by something or inspired and we become the Wise Son. Eyes open, seeking wisdom. But then maybe those endeavors fall flat after a while. Or something we desperately want gets taken away. And we become bitter. We become the Wicked Son. Then God forbid that bitterness becomes despair then apathy. And we cease asking questions and become the final Son.

But we can always choose. Especially on Pesach. So when you’re at the Seder, contemplate these perspectives. Hopefully, you can find something to ask about sincerely. It may be a question that troubles you or doesn’t make sense. Good. That means you’re thinking like the Wise Son. Now go find some contradictions. And their answers.

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