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The Haggadah: The Educator's Handbook

The Haggadah: The Educator's Handbook

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In the Haggadah we read about the Four Sons, their questions, and the proper responses for each one. A superficial reading of these passages doesn't reveal too much about the art of education, but a little digging divulges tremendous insight into the Torah's view on education. Indeed, a better educator's handbook couldn't have been written…

The Haggadah teaches us how to respond to the unique needs of four different types of children, or possibly the same child, depending on the circumstances and the motivation behind the question.

The wise one, what does he say? "What are the testimonies, the statutes and the laws which G‑d, our L-rd, has commanded you?" You, in turn, shall instruct him [all] the laws of Passover [up to] "one is not to eat any dessert after the Paschal lamb."

This child, the one with so many detailed questions, is all too often not recognized as the wise one. Frequently she is referred to as "the nudge" or "the pest." At the Seder table, while the adults are trying to have a nice conversation about "important" matters, this "disrespectful" rascal keeps on interrupting with questions. Very annoying. Especially when you don't have all the answers…

While the adults are trying to have a nice conversation about "important" matters, this "disrespectful" rascal keeps on interrupting The Haggadah points out that this child isn't disrespectful or a nudge. She is wise. Always remember your real priorities. Your child is your greatest and most important responsibility, and nothing will turn off a child more than a parent or teacher who doesn't treat their questions with proper respect.

Answer your child. Answer every detail. If you don't know the answer, ask your rabbi. Otherwise you might, G‑d forbid end up with…

The wicked one, what does he say? "What is this service to you?!" He says 'to you', but not to him! By thus excluding himself from the community he has denied that which is fundamental. You, therefore, must blunt his teeth and say to him: "'It is because of this that G‑d did for me when I left Egypt';1 'for me' — but not for him! If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed!"

This child asks a seemingly innocent question. Only careful examination of the language of the question reveals the problem.

When we are asked a question, our natural instinct is to answer the question. The Haggadah tells us that sometimes it is more important to address the questioner than to answer the question; but this can only be done if the parent/teacher is really listening to the child, even paying attention to the wording of the question. Obviously the question must also be answered in full detail, this we already learned from the previous section which teaches us how to respond to the wise child, but that is of secondary importance.

We inform the "wicked" son that if he would've been there, in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed. But now is different. Since the Torah was given at Mount Sinai every Jew has a G‑dly soul and, like it or not, will be redeemed with all his brethren when Moshiach comes. This hopefully "blunts his teeth," allowing him to realize that it is useless to try to bite and attack, because this, the Seder table, is his very special destiny.

The simpleton, what does he say? "What is this?" Thus you shall say to him: "G‑d took us out of Egypt, from the house of slaves, with a strong hand."

This child is asking a quite simple question. Many times a child will ask such a question because she isn't looking for a detailed technical response. Instead, this child is sitting at the Seder table and wondering: "Why is everyone so excited? Why does everyone gather, year after year, to celebrate an event which occurred many thousands of years ago? What is this?"

Such a question—which isn't so simple after all—deserves a response in kind. Don't bog down the child with the laws of grating the maror and the secret of charoset, that's not what she's looking for.

Sometimes it is more important to address the questioner than to answer the questionTell her that it's fine to be excited and enthused about Judaism because we have a great G‑d with a mighty hand who again and again delivers us from the hands of our enemies. This is the miraculous story of a people who have had as many enemies as there were civilizations, and G‑d's strong hand remains steady.

In other words, the parent/educator cannot suffice with transmitting information. It is necessary to imbue our children with a love for G‑d and a passion for serving Him.

As for the one who does not know (how) to ask, you must initiate him, as it is said: "You shall tell your child on that day, 'It is because of this that G‑d did for me when I left Egypt.'"

This child is not one who is "too obtuse to ask." Nor is he "unwilling to ask." He simply does not know that he is supposed to ask. He is used to processing all the information that his parents and teachers constantly throw in his direction; but he is not used to using his own mind, to scrutinize, analyze and question. This is actually a quite common phenomenon—even amongst very intelligent children.

The Haggadah tells us that if a child does not know to ask you must realize that (at least partially) the blame lies with you; for you have not initiated the child in the art of thinking.

The solution is to compel him to think. Tell him that "It is because of this that G‑d did for me when I left Egypt.'" Such a blank statement, which on the surface makes no sense, is certain to elicit a barrage of questions from any child: "Daddy, on which day are you supposed to tell this to your child?" "Mommy, because of what did G‑d do for you?" Rabbi, what did G‑d do for you?"

The ultimate educator is one who internalizes the message of the Four Sons:

  1. Answers all questions; never trivializing the importance of a child's curiosity.
  2. Not only answers the question, but also addresses the—unspoken—issues bothering the questioner.
  3. Permeates the children with a zeal for G‑d and Torah.
  4. Coaches them to think on their own.
Footnotes
Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Jack Midland Park March 18, 2013

Four Children Female children represent about half or more than half of humans who are born.
Isn't it about time to recognize this simple fact.? When educated females become mothers, they will be in a better position to educate their children.
I hope that the Chabad movement will start including female children on an equal basis with male children. Thank you. Reply

Dr Yaacov Myers Melbourne, Australia April 24, 2008

wicked and wise thank you for your interpretation and comments on education which is an essential component in learning and parenting and bringing the message of Pesach home.
It is not overlooked that the wicked son and the wise son are placed together - implying equal intelligence, but what is often overlooked is that the wise son and the wicked son differ in their attitude. The wise son includes G-d in his question, whereas the wicked son not only separates himself from "you", he does not mention G-d.

One can see the whole focus of the lesson that is common to all sons who approach the subject from a different viewpoint, and the FIfth son who is the one not at the Seder table, is inclusiveness. It is only when there is understanding and a feeling of worth and belonging that there is G-dliness..Yezias Mitrayim, going out of limitations, ensures that we are one family, one nation and that this is the sign that helps us to understand the focal message of Passover, namely, the understanding of G-dliness, which is that G-d does not pass us over, rather He connects us to one another, which is the common theme underlying the question that each child in their own way seeks to understand and thereby feel safe, redeemed, included and taken out and brought to safety in a safe and desirable place anywhere in this world and the next, next year in Jerusalem, because of the feeling as is ever present in the matzah and four cups of wine and the fifth, of being in the presence of G-dliness, each a part of His whole inclusive Oneness -the miracle of the Festival of Freedom, Passover and Matzos.. Reply

Dorshaya st. louis, mo April 14, 2008

the Four Sons Finally! An insightful and satisfying analysis of the four personalities AND the fact that it is the parent who is learning --about the child, from the child. I am so grateful for this presentation. Thank you! Reply

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