Parshas Tzav (Shabbos Hagadol) - (5769)
Everyone remembers reading at the Passover Seder about the Four Sons. First you have the Wise Son pictured contemplating life with a heavy book under his arm. Then comes the Wicked Son, usually portrayed as a mean-looking kid with boxing gloves, ready to beat somebody up. After that comes the Simple Son. He's the kid with the dumb expression on his face that says "duh". Last, and least, comes the Son That Doesn't Know To Ask. Most pictorial Haggadahs portray him as a little child, probably with his thumb in his mouth, hugging his security blanket tightly.
What's wrong with this picture? …. Everything! And I’ll tell you why.
Let's analyze the father's responses to his children for a moment. The Wicked Son asks, "Why do we need to do all these boring, tired rituals? All these Mitzvahs are a bunch of nonsense!" To which the father responds – quoting a verse in this week’s portion - that the Torah says, "It was because of these Mitzvahs (commandments) that G-d did miracles for me when I left Egypt" (Exodus 13:8). The Torah says "for me" but not for people like him. If the Wicked Son had been in Egypt, he would not have been saved. Pretty harsh words, eh?
Well guess what ... the father uses that exact same verse from the Torah when he addresses the Son That Doesn't Know To Ask! How can the father be so harsh to a little baby, still wearing Pampers, in effect telling him that he wouldn't have merited being taken out of Egypt?
Obviously, our ideas about the Four Sons mentioned in the Haggadah and what they represent, must be modified if we are to have a good understanding of their inherent message.
The truth is that the Four Sons represent four different groups of Jews. And each and every one of us fits into one of these four groups. Some of us are "wise sons" who have studied our religion quite thoroughly. We are very familiar with the glorious heritage and history that we, as Jews, all share. We are forever asking questions about our Judaism and its meaning for us. We're always challenging our Rabbis and teachers, never taking our religion for granted. We realize that in order to grow spiritually, we can never become complacent. There is too much at stake. The very meaning of our existence depends on it.
Then there's the other extreme. There are some wicked Jews who scorn and ridicule everything Jewish. Who needs this "religion stuff" anyway, they say. The proverbial self-hating Jew. Such people would write off three millennia of Jewish history if they could. To these Jews, assimilation and intermarriage are solutions, not problems. [Thankfully, the numbers in this group are quite small.]
In the middle of these two extremes are two additional types of Jews. First we have the "simple" Jews. (In reality, no Jew, in fact, no human being, is simple. We each have inside us a soul that is a spark of the Divine and is extremely complex.) They do the right thing, give charity when called upon, and are basically spiritual people. This group would greatly enjoy finding out more about Judaism and its relevance to all of us today. While they may not probe the depths of Judaism, questioning and challenging in a constant quest for spiritual growth and knowledge, their Jewishness is very much a part of their lives. They sense that there's something special about being a Jew and they'll make sure their children are aware of that as well.
The last group of Jews is the most difficult group to describe, and the most tragic as well. These Jews are aware of our long and unique history. They've been told many stories about their heroic ancestors in Germany, Spain, and Poland who were willing to die as Jews rather than to live as non-Jews. They might even show up at your Passover Seder. Or at least at the synagogue for High Holiday Services. You'll always hear them say, "I'm proud to be a Jew". But if you ask them what it means to be a Jew, they haven't got a clue. They might even be willing to sacrifice their lives before sacrificing their religion. But they have never taken the time out to find out just what is this religion that they're ready to die for. And that's the greatest tragedy of all.
It is to these Sons That Don't Know To Ask, who sit there at the Passover Seder watching over three thousand years of Jewish history and tradition fly by and aren't moved to ask even the most basic questions like, "Why are we Jewish?" and "What does being Jewish mean for me?", that the Father in the Haggadah shocks them out of their complacency by telling them the same harsh words he told the Wicked Son: If you're not going to invest even a little time and effort into finding out what you're doing here and why you are Jewish, what's the point of leaving Egypt in the first place?
G-d took the Jews out of Egypt to mold them into a nation with a mission. And, to a large extent, the plan has succeeded. We have given the world the gift of monotheism. We have always enjoyed a higher ethical standard and, as such, served as a shining light to the rest of the world. We, as Jews, have a destination and a destiny. It has to mean something to us to be Jewish. If it doesn't mean enough to us to inquire about it, then its whole point will have been defeated. And that would be a tragedy for all Jews, and for all mankind.
This, then, is the very powerful and provocative message of the Four Sons …. and gives us something to think about as we sit down this coming Wednesday night with our families for yet another Passover Seder.