The Torah's discussion (in Exodus 12 and 13 and Deuteronomy 6) of the seder dialogue reveals several versions of the child's questions and the parent's response. The Haggadah explains that, "The Torah is addressing itself to four sons: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask." Depending on how (and if) the child articulates his question, the Torah offers four different approaches to explaining the message of the festival and the significance of our freedom.

The wise son asks intelligent, detailed and well-structured questions that reflect the thoroughness of his observations and his desire to know, appreciate and participate. The proud father responds with a detailed explanation of the seder observances from beginning to end, all the way to the law that "one should not serve up any dessert after the meat of the Passover offering," so that its taste should linger in our mouths long after the seder. (Today, the same law applies to the afikoman, the matzah eaten at the end of the meal in commemoration of the Passover offering.)

The wicked son, observing the labor and expense that go into the making of the seder, asks: "Whatever for is this work of yours?" (Exodus 12:26). "This work of yours," notes the Haggadah — this is something he wants no part of himself. "This is because of what G‑d did for me," replies the father in kind, "when I left Egypt" (Ibid. 13:8). "For me... when I left Egypt" implying, explains the Haggadah, that "had he (the wicked child) been there, he would not have been redeemed."

To the simple son, who can manage only a lame "What is this?", the father responds with an appropriately elementary explanation of the night's significance. And to the father of "the son who does not know how to ask", the Torah instructs: "And you shall tell your child." You initiate the discussion; you prod him into conversation and participation.

Talking to the Wicked

Of the above responses, our answer to the wicked son begs clarification. Why do we tell him that he would have been left behind in Egypt at the time of the Exodus?

Factually, this was indeed the case. Our sages (based on Exodus 13:18) tell us that only one out of five Jews departed Egypt for Sinai on the first Passover. The other four-fifths refused to leave, preferring slavery to Pharaoh over commitment to G‑d. These Jews were not redeemed. For though G‑d accepted the Jews in Egypt as they were, despite their lowly spiritual station after two centuries of enslavement to the most debased society on earth, there was one condition: one had to desire freedom in order to deserve it.

Still, what is to be gained by telling the wicked son that had he been there, he would not have been redeemed? Do we wish to further alienate an already alienated child?

Explains the Lubavitcher Rebbe: In truth, our response to the wicked son is not a message of banishment and rejection, but one of acceptance and promise. The emphasis is on the word "there" in our reply. Had he been there, we tell the wicked son, he would not have been redeemed. The Exodus from Egypt was before the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, before G‑d's ultimate choice of Israel. There, in Egypt, redemption was contingent upon the Jew's choice and consent. Had he been there, he would still be there. But he was not there — he is here.

Here is after Sinai. Here, free is what we are rather than something that we might elect or decline to be. True, we are currently in exile, but "on that day," prophesies Isaiah, "you will be gathered up one by one, O children of Israel." When G‑d shall again come to redeem us, not a single Jew will be left behind.

The Fifth Son

As different as they may be, the four sons of the Haggadah have one thing in common: whether involved, challenging, inept or indifferent, they are all present at the seder table. They are all relating, albeit in vastly differing ways, to our annual reliving of the Exodus and our birth as a nation. The line of communication is open; the potential wise son that resides within every Jewish child is approachable.

Today, however, in our era of spiritual displacement, there also exists a fifth son: the Jew who is absent from the seder table. He asks no questions, poses no challenges, displays no interest. For he knows nothing of the seder, nothing of the significance of the Exodus, nothing of the revelation at Sinai at which we assumed our mission and role as Jews.

To these children of G‑d we must devote ourselves long before the first night of Passover. We must not forget a single Jewish child; we must invest all our energies and resources to bringing every last fifth son to the seder-table of Jewish life.

Based on the Rebbe's talks and writings, including a public letter addressed "to our brethren the Jewish people, and all educators in particular" dated Nissan 11, 5717 (April 12, 1957)