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The Fifth Son — The One Not (Yet) at the Seder

The Fifth Son — The One Not (Yet) at the Seder

A landmark public statement from 1957

Letter & Spirit - Personal and Public Correspondence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Send Us Your Letters Letter & Spirit - Personal and Public Correspondence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Editor's Note: Sixty years ago, on the 11th day of Nissan, 5717 [April 12, 1957], the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—issued a landmark pre-Passover letter that in many ways reframed a core purpose of the Passover seder: To find and invite “The Fifth Son,” any Jewish man or woman who “is conspicuous by his absence from the Seder service.

Over the following decades, the letter would come to inspire what today are thousands of public seders in every part of the world. But perhaps just as significantly, it created an awareness in Jewish families that there is an empty place at every Seder, and that there is a Jewish person somewhere who can be sought out to fill it. Sometimes that person can be a stranger. Sometimes that person can be a family member, friend or co-worker. Sometimes that person can be your own child.

Writing of the many Jews who had seemingly given up on the traditions of their ancestors, the Rebbe wrote: “There is no room for hopelessness in Jewish life, and no Jew should ever be given up as a lost cause.”

That is as true today as it was 60 years ago.

You are invited to share this letter with your friends.

By the Grace of G‑d
11th of Nissan, 5717
[April 12, 1957]
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Greeting and Blessing:

The Festival of Pesach is inaugurated by the central theme: “When thy son will ask thee,” and the Haggadah is based on the commandment of the Torah: “Then shalt thou tell thy son.”

There are various ways of asking questions and formulating the answers, depending upon whether the son belongs to the category of the “Wise,” the “Wicked,” the “Simple,” or “The One Who Knows Not How to Ask.”

While the “Four Sons” differ from one another in their reaction to the Seder service, they have one thing in common: they are all present at the Seder service. Even the so-called “Wicked” son is there, taking an active, though rebellious, interest in what is going on in Jewish life around him. This, at least, justifies the hope that someday also the “Wicked” one will become wise, and all Jewish children attending the Seder will become conscientious, Torah-and-Mitzvoth-observing Jews.

Unfortunately, there is, in our time of confusion and obscurity, another kind of a Jewish child: the child who is conspicuous by his absence from the Seder service; the one who has no interest whatsoever in Torah and Mitzvoth, laws and customs; who is not even aware of the Seder-Shel-Pesach, of the Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent Revelation at Sinai.

This presents a grave challenge, which should command our attention long before Passover and the Seder night. For no Jewish child should be forgotten and given up. We must make every effort to save also that “lost” child, and bring the absentee to the Seder table. Determined to do so, and driven by a deep sense of compassion and responsibility, we need have no fear of failure.

In order to remedy an undesirable situation of any kind, it is necessary to attack the roots of the evil. The same is true in this case.

The regrettable truth is that the blame for the above-mentioned “lost generation” lies squarely on the shoulders of the parents.

It is the result of an erroneous psychology and misguided policy on the part of some immigrants arriving in a new and strange environment. Finding themselves a small minority and encountering certain difficulties, which are largely unavoidable in all cases of resettlement, some parents had the mistaken notion, which they injected also into their children, that the way to overcome these difficulties is to become quickly assimilated with the new environment, by discarding the heritage of their forefathers and abandoning the Jewish way of life. Finding the ensuing process somewhat distasteful, as such a course is bound to be full of spiritual conflict, some parents were resolved that their children would be spared the conflict altogether. In order to justify their desertion and appease their injured conscience, it was necessary for them to devise some rationale, and they deluded themselves, and deluded their children, by the claim that in their new surroundings the Jewish way of life, with the observance of the Torah and Mitzvoth, did not fit. They looked for, and therefore also “found,” faults with the true Jewish way of life, while in their non-Jewish environment everything seemed to them only good and attractive.

By this attitude the said parents hoped to assure their children’s existence and survival in the new environment. But what kind of existence is it, if everything spiritual and holy is traded for the material? What kind of survival is it, if it means the sacrifice of the Soul for the amenities of the body?

Moreover, in their retreat from Yiddishkeit, they turned what they thought was an “escape to freedom” into an escape to servitude, pathetically trying to imitate the non-Jewish environment, failing to see that such imitation, by its caricature and inferiority complex, can only call forth mockery and derision, and can only offend the sensibilities of those whose respect and acceptance they are so desperately trying to win.

The same false approach to the minority problem, whereby the misguided minority seeks to ensure its existence by self-dissolution, which essentially means suicide, or, at any rate, self-crippling, has dominated not only individuals, but unfortunately has been made the creed of certain groups thrown together by a set of circumstances. This gave rise to certain dissident movements on the Jewish scene, which either openly or by subterfuge seek to undermine the Torah which Moses commanded us, as he received it from the One G‑d, and transmitted it to our people; the Divine Torah which gives our people its unique and distinctive character among the nations of the world. Verily, these movements, while differing from each other, have one underlying ideology in common, that of “We will be as the nations, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.” (Ezekiel 20:32)

The dire consequences of this utterly false approach were that thousands upon thousands of Jews have been removed from their fountain of life, from their fellow Jews and from their true faith. Deprived of spiritual life and content, there grew up children who no longer belong to the “Four Sons” of the Haggadah, not even in the category of the “Wicked” one. They are almost a total loss to themselves and to their fellow Jews and true Yiddishkeit, which are inseparable.

The event of the Exodus from Egypt and the Festival of Passover are timely reminders, among other things, that not in an attempt to imitate the environment lies the hope for survival, deliverance and freedom, but rather in the unswerving loyalty to our traditions and true Jewish way of life.

Our ancestors in Egypt were a small minority, and lived in the most difficult circumstances. Yet, as our Sages relate, they preserved their identity and, with pride and dignity, tenaciously clung to their way of life, traditions and distinct uniqueness; precisely in this way was their existence assured, as also their true deliverance from slavery, physical and spiritual.

It is one of the vital tasks of our time to exert all possible effort to awaken in the young generation, as also in those who are advanced in years but still immature in deeper understanding, a fuller appreciation of the true Jewish values, of Torah-true Yiddishkeit, a full and genuine Yiddishkeit; not of that which goes under a false label of misrepresented, compromised, or watered-down “Judaism,” whatever the trademark. Together with this appreciation will come the realization that only true Yiddishkeit can guarantee the existence of the individual, of each and every Jew, at any time, in any place, and under any circumstances.

There is no room for hopelessness in Jewish life, and no Jew should ever be given up as a lost cause. Through the proper compassionate approach of Ahavas Yisroel, even those of the “lost” generation can be brought back to the love of G‑d (Ahavas HaShem) and love of the Torah (Ahavas HaTorah), and not only be included in the community of the “Four Sons,” but in due course be elevated to the rank of the “Wise” son.

May G‑d grant that all sons and daughters of Israel be gathered together at the same table of the Seder service, to celebrate the Festival of Passover in its true spirit and manner, in accordance with “the testimonies, statutes, and laws which G‑d our G‑d commanded us.”

May the gathering also of those “lost tribes of Israel,” and their assembly at the Seder table, hasten the beginning of the true and complete Redemption of our people, through our righteous Moshiach, speedily in our time.

With the blessing of a Kosher and Happy Pesach,

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Rabbi Shmary Brownstein March 18, 2013

To Dvorah It is clear from your description of yourself that you are not the parent the Rebbe lays blame on in this letter. The letter was written in 1957, when the immigrant experience was still very much current. You (and I) are the product of that initial impulse to assimilate on the part of our great-grandparents, not its perpetrators. Surely your steps to greater observance will, in the end, cause your son to come closer to Judaism. Reply

Anonymous spain March 18, 2013

Name and personal recognition of father and mother is the key to Judaism.

This is why the fifth son is the most compelling article of the Rav, of blessed memory. Reply

Dvorah Lakeville PA March 14, 2013

I respectfully submit that I am a little offended by the Rebbe's (blessed be his memory) comment that blame lays squarely on the shoulders of the parents. I was not raised in a religious home. My parents were not raised in religious homes. Yet, we were all profoundly proud of our Jewishness. There was always a grand seder. I raised my children in the same way: Jewish, spiritual, but not religious. My "fifth son" is living in Austria, studying there, and although if he were at home he would come to my seder for sake of family, he has no real interest in his Jewishness and will not seek out a seder in Vienna. I have become more religious in the last ten years, and if it has had an effect on him, it has been to drive him further away from his roots. He is on his own journey, driven by his own mind. His lack of caring about being Jewish is not my fault. I trust that in years to come HaShem will walk with him on his journey and gently lead him home. Reply

katrin p. Germany March 12, 2013

Sometimes I wonder, is this not the true exile. When you think of those lost souls and your mind wanders and your thoughts end up nowhere. When you feel as if a part of you is missing and nowhere to be found. Maybe the true exile is in our hearts and is not about ourselves, but about the others that are lost.

I'm shivering while I'm typing this. I will attend my very first seder this year and I'm so grateful. And nothing would make me happier than to be able to give my place to one of those lost souls. Reply

Kyrie Anna March 11, 2013

Thank you for this article, it is a Reflection of what compelled me to learn and study Judaism. Reply

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