Thursday, April 5, 2012

Pesach cleaning

While cleaning for pesach I found an old floppy disc - remember those?  Not one of the really floppy eight inch ones.  One of the hard five inch ones. 
Fortunately, my home computer still has a disc drive (do you think it is time for an upgrade) and I opened the disc.  It was some stuff I had written during semicha, including an essay on the four sons.  I should finish this one of these days.  Here it is for all that are interested.

Four Sons

Conventional understanding of the four sons is that they are arranged in a hierarchy starting with the wise as the top of the hierarchy working down to the Son who does not know how to ask as the lowest. Many commentators address the issue of how to understand this hierarchy but all commentaries that i have seen accept this premise.

But consider that the hierarchy is really in reverse with the son who does not know how to ask being the culmination, the best of the sons, and the wise son being the worst. How?

First we must establish that the wise son is not called the righteous son, but the wise son so we cannot take for granted that he is considered righteous. Also, as almost all commentaries note, the question of the wise son is almost identical to that of the wicked son. The wicked son excludes himself from the Jewish people by asking, "what is this service to you?" and the wise son excludes himself by asking, "what are the laws, testimonies, and statutes that God has commanded to you?" Both say "to you" and not "to us" thereby excluding themselves from the story.

The mitzvah of the seder is mentioned in the Torah with the verse, "and you shall tell your son on that day saying because of this God took me out of Egypt."
The purpose of the seder format is to get the children to ask questions. Each of the children asks their own question except for the lst one. One could say that the son who doesn't know how to ask doesn't do so because he is respectfully waiting to be taught. When we want to engage a child who is not self motivated we do so by using pedagogical techniques that get them to ask. A motivated student does not need to be asked. He can handle the straight lecture form the professor or teacher. That is why the parent is simply directed to tell him the verse from the Torah. This fourth son is the ideal child. just as the bnei Yisrael said naaseh vinishma - we will do and we will listen. They did not ask questions at sinai. The questions came later. First they listened to what their father in Heaven told them. He is speechless and in awe.
This is further supported if we offer a different translation for the third son, in Hebrew called the Tam. He is usually translated as the simple son. But in Hebrew the word tam has many meanings. Jacob was referred to in his early years as Ish tam. This probably meant a pure person. Just as the sheep that were brought as korbanot were tamimim - pure or without blemish.
The wise and wicked son ask questions with an agenda attached to it. The third son asks a question that is pure. What's this?

The wicked son is not the worst son. He asks a question that clearly comes from an emotional place. He referrers to the seder as avodah - a service. Prayer is referred to as avodah as well. He asks an emotional question. What is this service to you? His question is forceful. It has teeth. It attacks the very foundation of belief and goes straight to the core of the parent. The parent counters with an emotional response. You have separated yourself from us so you would not have been with us in Egypt. He presents himself clearly as an enemy to tradition so he is treated as such. The Haggadah says we answer him by knocking out his teeth. The question is good, just remove the teeth from it.

The wise son however is the more devious. Like the rasha, he is also attacking the foundations of Judaism as he also separates himself from the group. His method of attack can be best understood from Achad Ha'Am's essay ancestor worship.
Achad Ha'Am says how the old attacks to tradition were emotional attacks like the rasha. They were disparaging remarks regarding earlier generations. These attackers were never successful because there emotional jabs were met with emotional responses. The new form of attack as a more clever method. It acts curious but has a taint of condescension. "Your ancestors were products of the time that they lived. It is quaint how you and they do these primitive rituals. Tell me more." As if an anthropologist studying some "other" primitive culture.
Why do we answer him by telling him about the afikoman? I have a couple of theories, nothing solid yet.