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    The Four Sons have changed

    The four sons, from the Prague Haggadah. 1536

    The four sons, from the Prague Haggadah. 1536

    Every family has its four sons – its wise, its wicked, its simple son, its son who does not know how to ask. (And when we say “son”, we mean human types). But things have changed with all of them.

    Once, the Chacham was the old grandfather, a relic of another age, whose piety irritated or at best amused his grandchildren.

    Now, the miracle of our time, every family has its young Chacham who wants to know and keep more than his or her parents and grandparents. Sometimes the Chacham goes to what the elders think are unnecessary extremes. But the new Chacham will have Jewish children and grandchildren, and the elders can congratulate themselves and breathe a sigh of relief.

    Once the Rasha was a Jew who wanted out from being a Jew.

    Today there is a new spirit of Jewish identification, but some want Jewishness without God and religion. Perhaps they say, “How can you believe in God after the events of the 20th century?”. It’s a valid question, and those who pose it should not be treated as harshly as the Rasha in the Haggadah.

    But try two answers: 1. hard as it may be to understand the world with God, without Him it is impossible; and 2. when you contemplate the wonder of the world and of being alive, how can you not believe?

    The third son, the Tam, has been maligned by translators because the Yerushalmi called him tippesh, a simpleton. In fact the Tam may be an ordinary, solid citizen who enjoys being Jewish but not on a very passionate level. He does not want to move away from Judaism but not to move closer to it either – a spiritual stick-in-the-mud.

    To the Tam we must say that just as a person grows in every other way, so must a Jew be prepared to grow as a Jew and every day understand, appreciate and observe more of the Jewish heritage.

    The fourth son, the She’eno yode’a lish’ol, used to be understood as too young or too inarticulate to put a question together.

    Today it is more likely that this is a Jew who has been deprived of the opportunity to arouse his curiosity about Judaism. The danger is that this year it is a fluke that he is at Seder and next year he may not come at all, and the centuries-long roll-call of generations sitting at Seder may come to an end.

    The Haggadah says, “You take the initiative” with the fourth son; and the “you” is not only the parent but also the community. Those who love Judaism must reach out and give the fourth son a taste which, with God’s help, will become an appetite.

    The Haggadah refers to four sons. The Lubavitcher Rebbe said there may be a fifth son who is not at Seder at all. Maybe this son is too far away from Judaism to know that Seder exists. Or perhaps he is one of the one and a half million child victims of the Sho’ah.

    That is why we should not only pour a glass of wine for Elijah at the Seder but also leave an empty chair, to show that the children of the Sho’ah remain a cherished part of the Jewish family. They could not live to be adult Jews, parents and grandparents in their own right. Can we not be Jewish for them as well as ourselves?

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