As part of the Passover Seder (program) we speak of four sons, each of whom is found in Scripture. They are described as the wise son, the evil son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Each one’s questions, or lack of them, needs to elicit an individually crafted response from parents. My father explains at each seder that these aren’t four distinct people sitting around some family’s Seder; rather these are characteristics that make up each of us. We all have a bit of each type of child in us, and different people have different percentages of each of the four sons in their makeup. Why is this important to us now?
Within many families, regardless of whether the parents initiate this or not, the children see themselves in defined and labeled ways. “I’m the studious one. She’s the funny one. He’s the responsible one. She’s the creative one.” Maybe also with negative terms: “I’m the lazy one. He’s the rebellious one. She’s the messy one.” The Jewish approach is to reject such labels. There aren’t four different sons; each human being has aspects of all types! Sometimes I study, sometimes I laze around. Sometimes I act responsibly and sometimes I make messes. The Torah viewpoint is nuanced, and we have different specific responses given to each of the four sons because at different times we all need one or another of those answers. Sometimes we need a metaphorical punch in the teeth and sometimes we need someone else to take the lead and guide us through an issue we don’t even recognize as problematic on our own. Each of us and each of our children are individuals made up of many components and qualities. We can recognize and celebrate our nuances instead of defining and confining ourselves or others into narrow boxes.
I’d like to suggest that Passover and other holidays are a good time to look at our children and at ourselves with this viewpoint in mind. Often on these special occasions we spend time with our extended families. When adult siblings get together, sometimes a funny thing happens. We may find ourselves playing out narrow roles that we assigned ourselves and our siblings years ago. It can be so frustrating to feel that you’re a mature adult who’s grown out of her childhood roles, and then you go back to your childhood home and find yourself reacting to each other the same way you did 10 years ago! Yes, you may have seen yourself or been seen as a certain way back then, but now we can put on the lenses of the Passover Haggadah to appreciate that we aren’t one way or another. Labels don’t fit people! We are nuanced composites of many different attributes, that shine or glare in different ways at different times.
When we can appreciate the four sons in each of us and the four sons in each of our children and extended family members, we can let go of our old rigid confining ideas, and truly move into the freedom of Passover.