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A Wise Son, A Wicked One?
A Wise Son, A Wicked One?

Volume 2 , Issue 4

The Torah speaks of four sons: a wise son, a wicked one, a simple one, and one who does not know how to ask....

Passover Haggadah

With these words, the Haggadah begins to describe in a remarkably concise manner, the four basic character types which make up the Jewish population in particular and the population of the world in general. The Chacham, the intellectual, who fulfills the mitzvot and can fully comprehend that which is expected of him by God; the Tam, the simple one, who adheres to God's tenets because of his education and upbringing, but does not really know why he is doing these things; the Sh'eno yodea lishol, the one who does not know how to ask for explanations, but practices God's teachings by rote without any need or desire to understand; and the infamous Rasha, the one who lives without Torah and sees no need to follow in God's way.

Commentators offer numerous explanations for the reason that the Four Sons are mentioned in the Haggadah; some compare them to the four different aspects of redemption from Egypt; others say that the Four Sons are mentioned to impress upon parents the importance of retelling the Passover story of our redemption from bondage to all their children, regardless of their capacity to understand or their interest (as in the rasha's case) to learn.

It is important, however, that while we read the Haggadah within the context of a ?retelling,? as we are commanded to do, we also glean from its content, from the discussion of the Four Sons in particular, the applicability of its message to our current time. Who are these Four Sons and what can they possibly represent to us?

Some would see in them the typical progression in the life of a Baal Teshuvah, from one who denies the existence of God and the need to observe mitzvot at all, to one who begins to observe some mitzvot through habit, to one who learns the reasons behind the observances, and finally to the stage where one has gained a true comprehension of Yiddishkeit.

A contemporary commentator once compared the Four Sons to the four ?branches? of Judaism--Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. I will not recall to which each was compared.

Jews in America, however, need not look beyond their own backyard to discover that the passage of the Four Sons can be applied most poignantly to them: to their individual practices and observances and to their interactions with other Jews. How beautiful it is to enter a shut on a Shabbat or a Yom Tov, to see so many people davening, but what of all the Sh' enam Yodim Lishol, who shuckel so ?spiritually,? but utter words by rote, entirely devoid of meaning? Are they truly more observant than those who are less adept at Jewish ritual, but listen to the words of their spiritual leaders and then attempt to integrate those ideas into their everyday lives? What of all those who believe that only their brand of Orthodoxy is acceptable in the Almighty's eyes, that only their brand of Judaism is authentic and capable of hastening the coming of the Mashiach? Which son are they? Will they be the final arbiters in the Olam HaBah? And what of those who find in their own lack of observance some right to look down upon and denigrate the greater adherence to mitzvot of others? Is the sight of a black hat, a beard, a kappotah in a normally non-religious neighborhood so threatening to the non-Chasidic Jew as to warrant feelings of fear and hate usually reserved only for one's worst enemies?

Where are the Chachamim? Even the Tamim? How can we expect the outside world to behave rationally when we, a people supposedly chosen by God as His shining examples, often cannot even bear the sight of one another? When even those who theoretically observe the same mitzvot in substantially the same way must constantly test each other's levels of observance and publicly lay waste to any rabbinical leader, no matter how observant, who dams try to attach importance to such outmoded traits as tolerance and compassion.

What will become of our future, of the future of our children, if we cannot learn to live with each other, understand each other's foibles, allow for each other's level of observance? Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, in a recent issue of the Orthodox Union's Jewish Action, coined the phrase ?inverse mutual tolerance? to suggest a method by which Orthodox and Reform Jews could establish a relationship. As opposed to ?Direct mutual tolerance,? which requires an affirmative acceptance of observances which violate halakha, an impossibility for Orthodox Jews, ?inverse mutual tolerance? suggests that ?Jews ask only that their own affirmations remain undisturbed [that] Jews feel comfortable in their Jewishness as they themselves define it? -- the solution of a true Chacham. But will the concept catch on and be applied outside the limited area of Santa Fe, New Mexico, or will Rabbi Goldberg be added to the list of rabbaim whose desire to see shalom among all of Klal Yisrael incur the wrath of the pseudo-religious or of the self-righteous non-observant?

One thing is abundantly clear. If our efforts to mikarev our fellow Jews, to bring them closer to God and more observant of mitzvot, is to be successful, we must learn to be better Jews ourselves. We must assess our own characters, determine which of the Arbah Banim, the Four Sons, applies to us, and somehow guide ourselves toward becoming Chachamim.

If one seriously wishes to raise his children as Jews, he will first endeavor to become a truly accomplished Jew himself. It is not his scholarship that will win the heart of his son for God, but rather his sincere, faithful and honest example ... If one does so, he will indeed attain the joy and solemnity which sanctify every Jew as a priest of God and enable him by virtue of his example to bequeath this sanctity to his children.

From the commentary of Samuel Raphael Hirsch on the Arbah Banim.

Have a kosher Pesach.

Harris Z. Tilevitz



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