Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! My apologies for any typos. Jack Moline
Yom Kippur, 5774/2013 - The Four Children - ©Rabbi Jack Moline
Let's talk about Pesach!
I know, it's almost seven months from now and a completely different kind of holiday, but there's one part of the seder that I have been thinking about continually since last Pesach and I don't have the patience to wait.
Near the beginning of the seder, when everyone is still paying attention, comes the discussion of the arba'ah banim, which translates as the Four Sons. I have no doubt the authors of this section were thinking of four boys, but we have learned enough about the human race to know that what they should have meant was the Four Children. So that's the presumption I will follow.
The section begins k'neged arba'ah banim dibrah torah, and mostly the Haggadah renders that "the Torah speaks about four sons." It goes on to describe those four sons - one wise (chakham), one wicked (rasha), one simple (tam) and one who does not know how to ask (she'eino yodei'a lish'ol). There's no question who the preferred child is - the wise one, who has already mastered the text of the Torah and the attendant rituals and wants to know more about them. There is also no question that the wicked son is the least preferred - I think the word "wicked" is a give-away. This child also has a certain mastery of material, but rejects it as being personally meaningful. That simple child, whom you might imagine either as a toddler asking all night, "What's that? What's that? What's that?" or as a child of limited intellectual capacity, is given a patiently simple response. And the one who doesn't know to ask is presumed to be too young or to have received not even the basic education and orientation to know what he or she doesn't know.
Even though we have music to the Hebrew text and song parodies in English that we sing with gusto at our sedarim, the fact is the part of the Haggadah I hear most often criticized, not counting the length of time before dinner, is this one. "How dare we label children like that?" goes one critique. Adult skeptics, many of whom recognize themselves as children in the second child, object to the label "wicked." People with strong backgrounds in educational theory applaud the superficial reading that suggests we teach each child to his or her perceptions, but object to the isolation of the children from each other and take issue with the advice about the wicked child which is, essentially, smack him in the mouth and tell him his impudence would have resulted in being left behind in Egypt.
Still, you can't deny the text. It's there and it's too well-known to slide it out of the evening's festivities without some wise child saying, "Hey, what about the Four Sons?" which would prompt some wicked son to say, "Shut uuuuup!"
I like to explain this section a little differently, and it could be that you have heard me say this before. It mollifies the people who think it is wrong to label any child as "wicked" or "simple." More importantly, it brings down the temperature if someone believes we are call them or their children "wicked" or "simple."
I think this story tells us that there are different ways that we as Jews imagine ourselves in this world. The teaching originates some time longer than 1500 years ago, a time at once very different from ours and then not so much. The dominant culture was not Jewish. There was plenty of prejudice and plenty of acceptance. And not every Jew was, as they say these days, a Jewy Jewstein - lots of other things beckoned, including Christianity and paganism and what we today call Eastern spiritual traditions.
Some Jews, one prototype child of the Children of Israel, some Jews relate to the Jewish people on an intellectual basis. They are the wisdom Jews. For them, the essence of being Jews is engaging with the rich and multiplying texts of our tradition. The Sages who produced the Talmud were wisdom Jews. They delighted in study, in word play, in interpretation and application of Biblical verse and the teachings of their predecessors and colleagues. For them, the complicated structures of learning, from which they derived thirteen principles of interpretation, were a reflection of divine revelation. Their minds served God, and their bodies followed suit. They were just as concerned with the number of white hairs permitted on a true red heifer as they were with the kind of testimony permitted in a capital murder case.
Out of this rich legacy of intellectual engagement emerged not only the Talmud and the Midrash, but the later texts that make up the books of the People of the Book. Moses Maimonides wrote a code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, that was a compendium of what to do, and a philosophical treatise, Moreh Nevukhim, A Guide to the Perplexed, still studied today by scholars among the Jews and the Arabic-speaking world.
And of course that heritage did not end with the Rambam. To this very day we take pride in the deep reservoirs of learning and knowledge among our people. I am willing to bet that you are vulnerable to appeals from institutions that promote such learning, yeshivos, Jewish supplemental and day schools and our own Conservative Movement's stellar efforts, Camp Ramah, the Conservative Yeshiva and, most important, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
By contrast, some Jews, one prototype child of the Children of Israel, some Jews relate to the Jewish people on the basis of the persecution we suffer. They are the wickedness Jews. The wickedness that defines their sense of identity is not one that wells up from within, at least not initially. It is instead the wickedness they perceive in the world that surrounds their Jewish identity. Later today we will recite an entire section of the Yom Kippur ritual devoted to remembering the people who hated us enough to persecute and murder us. The same Haggadah that brings us this teaching about the Four Children also reminds us that in every generation those who hate us stand against us to destroy us.
There is no denying that our history is filled with examples of people who want to do us in. Almost without exception, the cultures and societies that moved world history forward and excited our people with the potential for a world at peace and in cooperation, almost without exception those cultures and societies decided that we Jews, source of so much of who they were, needed to be eliminated by conversion, absorption or elimination.
It is not inaccurate to say that the terror inflicted on us by the stories of attempts against our lives has provoked a kind of mass emotional trauma. I have met plenty of people, some in this room, whose Jewish mandate is primarily to survive af tzu lokhis alles sonim, just to spite the enemies who would do us in.
In our time these Jews are responsible for what we call our defense organizations. They are founded on the premise that we need large staffs and larger budgets to monitor, report and combat the antagonists who individually or with large staffs and large budgets are out to do us harm. As I have said many times before, these organizations depend on wickedness for survival. So though it is accurate to say that the wickedness Jews do not have a sense of being wicked themselves, the impact of maintaining a connection to the Jewish people that depends on the antagonism of others is that they develop a need to find new enemies whenever they vanquish an old one.
If you ask wickedness Jews what they are so passionate about what they do, they will answer, "Never again." And if you ask them when they will achieve success, their answer will be just a little more succinct: "Never." And so far, they are right.
So some Jews, one prototype child of the Children of Israel, some Jews relate to the Jewish people on the basis of the riches of spirituality they identify in our tradition. They are the wonder Jews. That title has a resonance of miracle-workers and magicians, but I don't mean to make it sound so suspect. They are the Jews for whom primary engagement with the Jewish people is a sense of awe-struck wonderment. The original story calls this child tam, which is understood as "simple." But tam can also mean whole and complete, sometimes even pure. If the wickedness Jews see only evil, the wonder Jews see only good.
Since the European enlightenment, we have had a tendency to marginalize these Jews. They are our mystics and the descendants of our mystics. They are the Jews who find a spark of the divine in every encounter. From the transcendent consciousness of the great mystics of our people, people like Rabbi Shim'on bar Yochai, Isaac Luria (the Arizal), Yosef Karo, Yisrael Baal Shem Tov and the Ishbitzer Rav have emerged ways of thinking about the world that provokes even the most jaded human being to take a breath and ask in eager innocence, "Mah zot?" "What is this?" The desire to know the essence of things, the place of origin and emanation of the dewdrop, the elephant, the musical note, the kiss, the lightning bolt and the Torah, this desire is the mystic yearning to know God.
In our scientific world, such yearnings are dismissed as, well, simple-minded. But the part of our tradition that predates our scientific biases honors those impulses and cultivates them. Some of the wonder Jews of our time strike us as a little off the beaten track, speaking to counterculture refugees from the Summer of Love. Some strike us as religious fanatics, placing magical powers on tefillin or red strings. But the wonder Jews all cultivate a consciousness of God's presence in the world that does not demand apology or metaphor - encounters that are simple, pure and complete on their own terms.
Lastly, some Jews, one prototype child of the Children of Israel, some Jews barely relate to the Jewish people at all. These are the silenced Jews. There is some impulse deep within that makes for a strong connection with all that is Jewish, or maybe even something that is Jewish. The attachment is undeniable and inexplicable both. But whether the confusion from within prevents them from asking the essential questions that poke at their hearts or the boldness with which wisdom Jews, wickedness Jews and wonder Jews practice their Jewishness intimidates them, silenced Jews feel themselves outside the community.
Some of these Jews are drawn by an almost genetic pull. They have noticed an affinity for Jewish practice or theology. The things that Jews do resonate with some part of their lives - they have a grandmother who would never cook meat and milk together, a father who would slit the throat of felled game and drain the blood, a memory of candles burning at dinner every Friday night.
Some of these Jews have read the Bible out of curiosity or religious devotion and discovered that Torah speaks to their souls in the way that other sacred texts do not. Some of these Jews have a romantic eye for Jewish partners, or find a sense of acceptance among Jews that is affirming, or discover by sheer happenstance at a Shabbat dinner or seder that community and family done our way has the lure of home for them as well.
I don't mean to romanticize this silence. Some of these Jews are silenced by their experiences as well. They have been punished for being different or ridiculed for not fitting in. They clam up, withdraw, maybe even refuse to acknowledge. They have been silenced from within. The damage they have suffered makes them unwilling to risk being abused again, so they choose to take private pride in the heritage of their people and maintain an impenetrable wall against public acknowledgment.
We have no meter with which the measure the strength of attachment or engagement of our silenced Jews. But anyone who has guarded a secret of any kind for fear of being discovered knows how much energy goes into protecting that very private place within.
The Four Children of our seder do not only provide a pedagogic lesson for how to teach a child according to his or her inclinations and attitudes. Perhaps the message is not so much pedagogy at all as it is appreciation of the diversity among our people. Or maybe it is even more than that.
The first word of the introduction to this teaching is k'neged. K'neged arba'ah banim dibra torah, the Torah speaks about four children. It's accurate enough to translate k'neged as "about," but the word carries with it not only the sense of being "about" but the sense of being "against." If you know even a little Hebrew, you know that the word neged means "opposite." Look up at the left side of the sanctuary wall, if you can see it, and you will see the verse from Psalms (16:8), shivti H' l'negdi tamid, "I have placed the Lord opposite me always." That verse is about spiritual geography - I keep God before me - but neged can also mean not just physically opposite but personally opposed. When you object to something and want to express it in Hebrew, this word in various forms is the one you use, as in ani mitnageid, "I object!"
So even though this little story about the four sons draws its structure from four different ways the Torah seems to describe the Exodus and the questions it raises among children, and even though I have just offered you an interpretation that illustrates the diversity of Jewish peoplehood, perhaps that first word, k'neged, really means that the Torah speaks against the notion that there are four different children described. Indeed, I suggest, the Torah suggests that there is only one child and that child is you and I. Each of these four prototypes of children is within each of us, perhaps in varying combinations.
There is within each of us a wisdom Jew, proud of the intellectual heritage of our people. There is within each of us a wickedness Jew, poised to recognize the prejudice and oppression that our history insists never fully abate. There is within each of us a wonder Jew, even among the atheists and agnostics, carried away by a sunset or Israeli jet fighters over Auschwitz or being surrounded by a thousand voices singing asei imanu tzedakah vachessed v'hoshi'einu. And there most certainly is within each of us the silenced Jew, intimidated into withholding an essential question about something mundane like "why do we stand for aleinu" or something profound like "do I really believe what I am reciting tonight?"
Torah speaks against splitting up those four inner children. Torah demands that we leave the family whole. They are to be honored and acknowledged even when they are troubling, because if all four of them are a necessary part of each Jew, then all four of them are a necessary part of the Jewish people as a whole.
If I were smart, if I were one of them there wisdom Jews, I would wish you well over the fast, as they say in England, and sit down. I'm not so smart.
I want to take another moment to give you a hard time, because, quite honestly, I am alarmed at a direction I see our community taking. We are diminishing one of our four children.
Much of the talk this past year, and not just this past year, in our community has been about welcoming. We have books and initiatives on the subject, including a wonderful approach taken by one of my favorite teachers, Ron Wolfson. To be welcoming is essential in this day and age because too many people are willing just to walk away to some place that WILL welcome them if we don't. We must especially be welcoming to the silenced Jews. After all, the instruction on how to deal with "the one who does not even know how to ask" is at p'tach lo, you should provide an opening, whether that is an open question or an open door or an open heart. We are becoming better and better at being welcoming to all our four Jews, most of all our silenced Jews.
At the same time, our community is obsessed with security. Our enemies are about in the land. They want to convert our children, lure them into cults, dissuade them from morality, make them vote for the wrong political party, deport them to Israel and then blow them up. Perhaps I am being a little more than hyperbolic here, but I offer as evidence that every time there is an act of violence involving a Jew or someone presumed to hate the Jews - like the Boston Marathon incident - we get emails and faxes from the community relations organizations and synagogue umbrella organizations reviewing procedures for keeping our synagogues safe from terror attacks. We got those notices when the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked. We got those notices when kids painted swastikas on cars in Brooklyn. We got those notices when Jewish organizations came out in support of military action against Syria. We are becoming better and better at incorporating our wickedness Jews.
Meanwhile, in spite of the fact that mainstream Judaism and Jewish culture has ignored the abundance of mystical tradition we practice all the time - from kabbalat Shabbat to kissing the mezuzah - we have been on a voyage of rediscovery of the power of mystical practice. An entire stream of Judaism - Renewal - has devoted itself to updating and implementing the purposes of Hassidism before it melted into halakhic obsession. Practices like chanting and meditation, which American Jews associated with the paganism of Eastern tradition, have been restored to their organic places in Jewish life. Becoming sensitive to the ability to experience awe in the world has moved from flaky to authentic. A niggun is no longer a performance piece. Meditative silence is no longer an embarrassing void to be filled. God's presence in moments great and small has become acknowledged, even celebrated, rather than dismissed. We have embraced wonder and we embrace our wonder Jews.
In fact, we cultivate a sense of silence, a sense of wonder, a sense of wickedness in how we educate our children, just as the haggadah says we should. We want them to explore their inner sense of identity and we should, 100% we absolutely should, so we teach them to ask unanswerable questions. We want them to develop a sense of wonder, so we provide them experiences without long explanations so that they will come to recognize the potential of every encounter to be imbued with holiness. We teach them about the destruction of the Temple, the expulsion from Spain, the Holocaust and looming threat of nuclear weapons and chemical weapons and biological weapons, and we cannot refuse to break their hearts when the price of ignorance is danger.
But my friends, we have refused to make our children into wisdom Jews. We refuse to demand of them the hard work it takes to become yod'ei seifer, people who know what they are talking about in Jewish tradition. We teach them skills to read from the Torah and the siddur, but we do not expect them to learn what they mean. We teach them to have the experiences of being Jews, but not the meaning of those experiences. We have capitulated to the digitalized and excerpted approaches to education that deem only those things which are necessary or entertaining to be worth the investment of time and effort.
And I do not want to diminish the importance of all those other things we have reclaimed. But just as it is inadequate to ignore the dangers to our existence, to banish a sense of spiritual fulfillment and to accept the silence that covers a secret, so too can you not be a full person as a Jew if you dismiss the essential nature of being an educated Jew.
You know that we are called the People of the Book. We are not called the People of Books, but the People of THE Book. That book is Torah, and though it has been expanded throughout the generations to include an awful lot of sacred literature, we do not fulfill our mandate to THE Book with undergraduate educations in the liberal arts and hard sciences, professional degrees and post-graduate dissertations or even wide reading in world literature.
So if we are to begin again to create whole Jews out of our children, then we must, as adults, nurture the four children inside each one of us - not just the commitment to protect our people, not just the sensitivity to God's saturation of life, not just the willingness to ask hard questions. All of those things together and more. Please, I beg of you, set the example for your children and grandchildren and the next generation of Agudas Achim and the Jewish people. Learn something.
What should you learn? Everything I am about to suggest is hard, but life is hard. You can do it.
Learn some Hebrew, I am not kidding. Life lived in translation is like kissing your lover through a veil - and that's not original, Bialik said it.
But even if you can't, here's what you should learn. Tenakh, the Bible. The siddur, the prayer book. Talmud. Midrash. Kabbalah. Anything by Maimonides. The Shulchan Arukh, code of Jewish law. Ibn Ezra. Spinoza. Schneur-Zalman. Mendelsohnn. Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rosenzweig. Buber. Gershon Scholem. Kaplan. Heschel. Bialik. Trude Weiss-Rosmarin. Judith Hauptman. Amy-Jill Levine. Neil Gilman. Dovid Hartman, Donniel Hartman, Gordis, Gordis and Gordis.
You can learn with a book in your hand or a tablet on your lap or a screen on your desk. Find yourself a teacher and make yourself a companion in learning.
And no, it is not the job of the Religious School or even the day schools available to you to teach that to your children. V'shinamtam l'vanekha. YOU teach YOUR kids. Teach them by your example.
Near the end of Fahrenheit 451, the dystopian novel of a world without books, the hero discovers a band of exiles who have taken it upon themselves to memorize a book in order to preserve it. In a scene memorable in print and on screen both, old men and women repeat their books to children and grandchildren who memorize the oral tradition rescued from the written - an ironic reversal of our own intellectual history. They become their books. They embody wisdom.
Before too long we will have fully restored our congregation's library. It will look different than the libraries past, thanks in very large measure to the generosity of the Schonberger family for whom it is named. It will be a place to learn about our tradition. Make it your home.
At the end of April, in the middle of Nisan, you will sit at your table and recite with those gathered k'neged arba'ah banim dibrah torah, echad chakham v'echad rasha v'echad tam v'echad she'eino yodei'a lish'ol. You will look around the table and see them - the wisdom Jew, the wickedness Jew, the wonder Jew and the silenced Jew. You will see them in every face and in the reflection of your polished spoon. To be whole, we must be all of those things. To be Jewish, to be human, we must be whole.
Chatimah tovah.and a zissen pesach!