This week is the Jewish holiday of Passover. The beginning of this holiday is celebrated with a Passover Seder, a ritual meal centered around retelling the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. Included in the seder are several discussion prompts related to the story and our traditions, formed around symbols, ritual acts, and scripted questions.
One such discussion prompt is the fable of The Four Children:
The Torah speaks of four types of children: one is wise, one is wicked, one is simple, and one does not know how to ask.
The Wise One asks: “What is the meaning of the laws and traditions God has commanded?” (Deuteronomy 6:20) You should teach him all the traditions of Passover, even to the last detail.
The Wicked One asks: “What does this ritual mean to you?” (Exodus 12:26) By using the expression “to you” he excludes himself from his people and denies God. Shake his arrogance and say to him: “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt…” (Exodus 13:8) “For me” and not for him — for had he been in Egypt, he would not have been freed.
The Simple One asks: “What is all this?” You should tell him: “It was with a mighty hand that the Lord took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
As for the One Who Does Not Know How To Ask, you should open the discussion for him, as it is written: “And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did.’
-Traditional 4 Sons (Translation) | Passover Haggadah by Sara Smith
Many of us today find the response, as well as the label, given to the “Wicked Child” quite striking, harsh and punitive. But breaking it down from the literal reading, the lesson can be understood as one about what it means to be a member of a community, and the drawbacks of choosing not to participate.
As the text states, by asking his question in second-person, the Wicked Child “excludes himself from his people.” Why, one can only speculate – perhaps it is out of pure rebelliousness, or perhaps he finds Jewish rituals arduous and is trying to get out of them. But these rituals provide an important function in bonding together and maintaining the Jewish community, an interdependent community that supports and protects its members. To opt out of these rituals is also to alienate oneself from the community, leaving behind that support and security. It is not possible to shed the obligations of belonging to a community without losing the benefits, too. The response to the Wicked Child reminds us of those benefits: together as a community the Jews made it out of Egypt, but without the help of the collective, many acting as individuals would have been left behind.
When reflecting on this interpretation of The Four Children this past weekend, I also thought of RTEBN’s values around fostering a sense of community in all our work. With this framework in mind, I realized that RTEBN’s interactions with the people in our community aligns fairly well with these four metaphorical categories:
Our “Wise Children” are our House Captains and donors. They ask, “How can I apply my skills and resources to solve the problems we face?” To them we give projects and program details, so they can help us get right to work.
Our “Wicked Children” are skeptics and cynics. They ask, “Why are you spending your own time and money on these projects?” To them we reply that we help our neighbors because they deserve help and we can provide it; because we know our neighbors would help us if we were to need it; and because we all benefit from helping each other.
Our “Simple Children” are newcomers to our community. They ask, “What is Rebuilding Together, and what do they do?” To them we answer simply that we repair homes, revitalize communities, and rebuild lives. We encourage them to get involved and learn more.
And Those Who Do Not Know How To Ask include all the people who are overwhelmed by the multitude of pressing issues and injustices in the world, who don’t even know where to start. We invite them to join us by providing them tangible, achievable tasks they can do to help. We explain that we do not need to solve every aspect of housing inequity all at once – sometimes we just need to paint a fence.
“Answering the Four Children.” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/answering-the-four-children/. Accessed 30 Mar. 2021.
“Passover Seder.” Wikipedia, 31 Mar. 2021. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passover_Seder.
Pesach Haggadah, Magid, The Four Sons. https://www.sefaria.org/Pesach_Haggadah,_Magid,_The_Four_Sons. Accessed 30 Mar. 2021.
The Four Children Explained – An Anthology of Classic and Kabbalistic Teachings. https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/pesach_cdo/aid/1486118/jewish/The-Four-Children-Explained.htm. Accessed 30 Mar. 2021.
Traditional 4 Sons (Translation) | Passover Haggadah by Sara Smith. https://www.haggadot.com/clip/traditional-4-sons-translation. Accessed 31 Mar. 2021.