Sermon: Shabbat HaGadol: Today’s Four Children

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 2 April 2012

When my daughters were much younger the idea of their dad coming to school to teach their class a little about Judaism or to run a school assembly was a delightful prospect.   We have a photo from 12 years ago with Alice our elder daughter and me at her nursery school.  I am holding a lulav to show her three year old classmates the symbol of the Sukkot festival and she is standing proudly beside me clearly really happy that I am there.

Many parents tell me that they have gone to their child’s school to show the class how Chanukkah is celebrated or to share some Matzah and all the way through primary school this is very much welcomed by their children.   The trouble for Rabbis’ children is that, at the point when your parent’s presence at a school assembly could potentially be excruciatingly embarrassing, it doesn’t stop when you reach secondary school.

So it was with some trepidation that I accepted the invitation from Haberdashers’ Girls School to run the Jewish assembly this past week.  Haberdashers’ is a school with at least two hundred Jewish pupils among the thousand or so girls from years 7-13, including both our daughters, Alice and Miriam.  I went to the boys’ school next door and Jewish assembly there was also full of hundreds of Jewish boys.  In my day it was run by Daniel Taub and Michael Marmur, who are now respectively the Ambassador for Israel to the United Kingdom and the Dean of Hebrew Union College, training Rabbis for the world in Jerusalem.  The sixth form girls who organise Jewish assembly now were impressed with where their volunteering might bring them later in life.

I was given very detailed instructions by Alice and Miriam about what to do and what not to do in order that I didn’t embarrass them and the many other Alyth members who would be there.  They included no pacing, no sermon, remember that many non Jewish girls attend the Jewish assembly because they tend to be much more engaging than those of the other faith groups in the school, use good audio visual material and above all don’t drone on!

In the end they told me I did all right and they did not have to disassociate themselves from me for the rest of the term.  My assembly was essentially about the four children of our Seder.   One wise, one wicked, one simple or straightforward and one who does not know how to ask.    It was an exploration through the representation of the four children in Haggadot down the ages.

I began with these four sons in the Prague Hagaddah of 1526 – the wise one with his books, the wicked with his weapons of violence, the simple one just looking simple and the one who does not know how to ask as the child spoken to tenderly by his father.  I ended with these four from the Israeli artist Dan Reisinger from the 1980’s where as you can see the four children are just all composites of the same four elements and it is impossible to tell them apart.   Hence the final point of this assembly which I will share with you at the end of this sermon.

Our Haggadah is based on cycles of four – at your Seder point them out as you go through.    There are of course the four cups of wine each one representing a promise made to the people of Israel in their journey from slavery to redemption.  Then there are the four questions that a child asks when they sing Ma Nishtanah, what is the difference between this night and all other nights.   Then the four children represent four different attitudes to the Seder.

Our Movement for Reform Judaism has this week published a draft copy of a brand new Haggadah.   Here it is ready for us to use here at our communal seder and you are welcome to borrow copies from us to use yourself as long as you promise to bring them back in time for us to use for the evening.   It is beautifully illustrated by paper cut artist and Alyth member Suzy Taylor.  Her four children are clearly differentiated one from the other – and they are boys and girls.

In the translation and in her pictures they are named by their attitudes to the Seder – rather than through blanket descriptions of their character.   Hence they are the studios child, the cynical child, the naïve child and the one who does not know how to begin to ask.    There are many other great ideas in this first ever whole Reform Movement Haggadah since West London Synagogue’s David Woolf Marks published his idiosyncratic Haggadah of 1842, you’ll hear more about this in our Study Service on Seventh night Pesach.

There is another four in our Seder service but it is not as explicit as the wine, the questions and the children.  This is the four ways in which the story of our people’s liberation from Egypt is told.  Each of them, says Rabbi Meir Schweiger of the Pardes Insitute in Jeruslam, is a response to the attitudes of one of the four children.   The first telling of the story responds to the wise or studious child, the Hacham.   Now this child might well say – I know all about our coming out of slavery, I know what to do to commemorate it, I know what Pesach is about – why do I need to be part of this Seder with people who don’t?  To him or her is directed the first part of the Seder when we say “avadim hayinu”  we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and if God had not brought us out of there we still would be. Therefore even if all of us were wise, all full of understanding, all rich in experience and we all knew God’s teaching we would still have to talk about the Exodus and linger in its telling.  Then the story of the five Rabbis, who studied all night until it was time to say the morning Shema, reminds the wise child that even the great Rabbis of the past followed this instruction.

The second telling responds to the Rasha, the wicked or cynical child – who says “what is this to you”, or, in a text in the Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 70b) complains that year after year he is forced to sit through people telling him how they came out of Egypt.   His telling of the Passover story is this one – “v’hi she’amda’  which reminds him that not only were the Jews oppressed in Egypt but in every generation we have to be watchful against those who stand against us to make an end to us.  In our new Reform Hagaddah an additional prayer says “in every age we fail to learn the lessons of war and conflict as we stand against each other.  New generations bring hope and trust in God” and we need the Rasha to be with us in that struggle, and he or she needs it too for a good future.  That is why the Rasha needs to be at the Seder.

For the Tam, the simple or naïve child, the Seder turns to teach basic Jewish enriching text study and how to do it.  The simple child’s section of the seder begins with the words “Arami oved Avi” – a wandering Aramean was my father. Through four verses from the book of Dueteronomy (26:5-8) tells the basic story of the Abraham to the Exodus.  Then every single phrase of the passage is explained and interpreted in the way that Jews do: with midrash, Rabbinic ideas through the ages, comparisons to situations of our present day, all of the techniques that make Torah come alive in our generation including the spilling of drops of wine for each of the plagues to remind us that we must never rejoice over another people’s suffering.  The simple child’s section ends with Dayenu where we say that any element of this story of our people would be worthy of praising God but put it all together and we join together in joy.   So we sing the Hallel, the ancient Psalms of praise.

How does the Haggadah respond to the child who does not know how to ask?  He or she is normally pictured as a toddler or a very young child.  Torah interpretation, appeals to his sense of ethics and values, asking him to study through the night are not appropriate to answer his needs.  So the response to this child is through his senses.   For him or her the response is foods whose smell and taste he will remember forever – the carpas, the taste of spring, the matzah, the bread of affliction with its story of escape in haste baked in, the maror, the bitter herbs with the bitterness of slavery sharp on his tongue and the charoset, remembering the mortar used by the slaves and also the value of his own family as every family makes charoset in their own way – and it tastes good.  He doesn’t know how to ask – but he does know how to eat and enjoy!

Which one of these children are you – studious, cynical, naïve or not sure how to begin?   Which part of the Seder is your part?  The answer for our times is clear – Dan Reisinger had it right – we are all a combination of all of these and that it why we all need all of the Seder!

Sometimes we are happy and able to put in the effort to learn about our people, our faith, our past, present and future.  Sometimes we find it hard to know why it is worth the effort.  Sometimes we realise that there is still so much to learn.   And sometimes we don’t know how to begin to face the challenges the world brings to us and our people.

So my line at the end of the Haberdashers’ Assembly was a modern answer to the four children of the Seder – an answer based in a second century text from Ben Zoma who asked the question “Aize hu chacham” who is truly the wise child?  Ben Zoma’s answer “a person who is able and willing to learn from everyone” (Avot 4:1).   At your seder consider how to make everyone’s presence count – don’t just read – talk and share your wisdom with each other – your responses to what you are hearing – your experiences – and may you have a happy Pesach.