The Four Children Ask About the News

On Pesach, we Jews use an interesting rhetorical device as part of our obligation to retell the story of the Exodus; when I was I kid, we called it The Four Sons. There was

  • the wise son who asks about Passover in a measured and earnest way, which, to me, always sounded pompous and condescending;
  • the wicked son, who asks about Passover in a disparaging and divisive way, which, to me, always sounded lonely and hurt;
  • the simple son who asks in a deceptively bland and humble way, which, to me, always sounded fake; and
  • the son who is unable to ask who gets no lines in the pageantry at all, which, to me, always sounded impossible — but maybe in someone else’s family . . .

With gender equality in mind, many people, now, call this part of the seder The Four Children because, lets face it, any given daughter can be as wise and as wicked and as simple as any given son, and when it comes to not being able to ask, daughters have probably had a corner on that market for centuries. But I digress . . ..

So, while Pesach is still a few weeks away, I thought I’d comment on how so much news coverage makes me feel like The Four Children are at it again.

The wise child is a clever boy. He would rather ask questions to which he thinks he knows the answer than actually learn anything new.

The wicked child is a vindictive girl. She would rather ask questions that outsource blame than figure out what she can do to help.

The simple child is just asking for trouble. His questions are fair, but they invite a firestorm of conflicting answers that would rival the destruction of Dresden during World War II. Anyone willing to answer such a simple question has carte blanche to rattle off any response because the simple child doesn’t understand enough to judge quality of the answer. The answer to such a simple question runs the risk of being oversimplistic, itself; drenched in bias and rumor; based on rickety assumptions; or true, but not accurate.

And that child who is unable to ask, what’s wrong with her? Well, she’s not asking, that’s what’s wrong with her. But maybe she’s not asking because she recognizes the complexity of the issue rather than because she’s too slow-witted to ask.

In the haggadah, we offer answers with which we intend to help each child grow. I’m not sure we do a good job, so I thought I’d write my own haggadah and stop complaining. In MY haggadah, I would

  • try to help the wise child learn the difference between a question and a declaration.  To the wise child we would say: if you think you know the answer to the question, consider what you’re really looking for and ask for that instead. Maybe the wise child just needs re-assurance or clarity or attention.
  • try to help the wicked child learn the difference between a question and a challenge. To the wicked child  we would say: if you want to blame someone, find another forum, but if you want to know that we’ll be okay, I only know that we will try. Maybe the wicked child just needs to feel safe.
  • try to help the simple child learn to tailor a question to its purpose. To the simple child we would say: Let’s talk about your question and what you really want to know. Maybe the simple child knows more than anyone gave him or her credit for knowing.
  • try to help the child who is unable to ask . . . well . . . ASK. To the child who is unable to ask, we  would say: If you need time to form your question, we’ll wait; if you need words that you can’t find, we’ll get out the dictionary and look them up; if you need to feel safe saying what you want to say, we promise to listen with respect; and if you really can’t speak, we will do our best to tell you the story in a way you can understand and to leave room for you to respond in your own way. Maybe the the child who is unable to ask is actually a gift to us, pushing us to understand the answers in a new way.

As we enter a new fight in Libya, and watch helplessly as thousands and thousands of Japanese people grieve, and root for our teams in the NCAA basketball tournament, and try to find jobs, and try to pay medical bills, and face all of the challenges ahead of us, I hope we ask the questions that lead us to wholeness and understanding rather than discord and strife.

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