Monday evening, April 10, begins the Jewish holiday of Passover, and April 16 is Easter Sunday.
This week I want to offer my interpretation of one of the stories told in the Haggadah, which is the ritual script for the Passover meal called the seder. It is the story told about four sons (we say four children today for the sake of gender equality).
The first child is the wise child (Hebrew: chacham) who asks, “What are the precepts, laws and observances that the Lord our God has commanded you?” The second child is the wicked child (Hebrew: rasha) who asks, “What is this observance to you?” The third is the simple child (Hebrew: tam) who asks, “What is this?” And finally there is the child who does not even know how to ask (Hebrew: sh’ayno yodeah lesh’ol).
The conventional interpretation of this story in the Haggadah is that the four children are listed in descending order of goodness, with the wise child being the best and the one who does not know enough to ask being the worst. This is not my take. I believe the four children are listed in ascending order with the wise child being the worst and the child who does not know how to ask being the very best.
The wise child is the worst because he or she is only interested in the minutiae of the holiday, not its larger and deeper meaning. This is the kind of student who memorizes things for tests. This child knows the location of every tree but has no idea whatsoever about the location of the forest. The answer given to the wise son is dripping with sarcasm. He is told not to eat anything after eating the discovered piece of matzo (unleavened bread) at the end of the meal. That law does not even begin to approach the soaring meaning of Passover or its meal. It is a detailed answer given to someone lost in the details of religious observance.
The wicked child is supposed to be wicked because he or she asks, “What is this to you?” This supposedly cuts himself or herself off from the community. However, the wise child’s question also reveals the same distancing, “What are all these rituals to you?” So the traditional explanation makes no sense.
However in my explanation, the wicked child is higher than the wise child because he or she is asking about the bigger picture — about the forest and not the trees, “What is this to you?” This is not a question about religious minutiae. The wicked child is asking a better, deeper question. The answer is to judge the questioner the way the questioner judges the community. “If you had been in Egypt you would not have been redeemed.”
The simple child is on a still higher spiritual level with a shorter question, “What is this?” Not, “What is this to you?” but, “What is this?” This is a question about the event itself, not about how people interpret the event. The answer to the simple child comes closest to the true meaning of the event, “With a mighty arm God freed us from Egypt, from the house of bondage.”
And finally the child who does not even know how to ask, is, I believe, the most spiritually evolved of all the four children because that child is not trying to understand the event with words, but rather is trying to live through the event in open silence. Passover is an act of liberation by God in history. It does not require a question. It requires a response.
For Judaism and Christianity, history vouches for faith. That history imposes a personal, almost transcendent connection between each of us today and those present at the Exodus 3,200 years ago. This explains the answer given to the child who does not know how to ask, “This is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8). In Passover, and in Easter, Judaism and Christianity beckon us to believe that no matter how distant we are from the actual event, we can still enter the event and relive the event.
I cannot explain with abundant clarity what it means to me to actually leave Egypt at my seder meal any more than my late partner, Tom Hartman, could explain what it meant to him to actually consume the body and blood of Christ. But this much I do know: Passover and Easter are not symbolic. They are, like Alice in Wonderland, rabbit holes. They allow us to drop out of a moment of profane time and enter into a moment of sacred time.
The one who does not know how to ask does know how to enter. Above that there is no higher level.