Close to the beginning of Maggid, the story-telling section of the Haggadah, and soon after asking the four questions comes the section commonly referred to as the Four Children. The Haggadah tells us that the Torah speaks of four children: chacham -Wise, rasha -Wicked, tam -Simple, and she'eino yode'a lish'ol -the one who does not know how to ask a question. The Haggadah is presenting a midrash--as the Torah actually does NOT speak of four children according to the pshat or contextual meaning. Look at the context of the four children in the Torah: (Exodus 12, 13 and Deuteronomy 6).
In general, we can see the Haggadah as a model for our story telling. The Haggadahs story of 5 rabbis in Bnei Brak discussing till morning is to encourage us to not hold back. The story of Rabbi Elazar examining every word in detail, shows us how to examine every word. Do we read the story of the four children to teach us to tell the story four different ways? A common understanding of this passage is to stress that each child/individual must be told the story in the appropriate modality. Even so, the four children of the Haggadah raise a number of interesting and difficult questions that you may want to explore at your own seders. Beware of preconceived notions and stereotypes as you re-open this text.
Look at the differences between the Haggadah and the Torah text. The creator of the midrash has chosen to re-arrange the questions and the answers of the Torah text to suit his purpose- and for the Wise child, the answer provided is not from the Torah at all. The midrash also re-orders the questions. How do the Rabbis change/edit the biblical text? (Check out several Haggadot: does the wise child say commanded us or commanded you? Check the Hebrew- does it say otanu -us or etchem -them? Sometimes the Haggadah editor has retained the Biblical text - etchem- but creatively translates it as 'commanded us' because saying 'you' was what gets the 'wicked' child in such trouble. How are the childrens questions the same/different? How are the answers given the same/different? Note the answer given to the 'one who does not know how to ask' is the same as to the 'wicked', yet without the negativity of the latter. Is there a relationship between not asking and being wicked?
And More Questions:
Why are there four children? How do they fit together? Look at the order. Is there anything unusual? Why is the wicked after the wise child? Which child does not belong? (be careful, this can be tricky).
There is no wise child, or wicked child in the Torah text. And it is not so simple. Check out several Haggadot: is the second child wicked, contrary, stubborn, rebellious or skeptic? The 'wicked' child may be confrontative, but is still engaged. (I have always liked the Berditcher Rebbe who, seeing the good in every person, calls this individual, the 'second' child. What is the nature of the problem? And the third child - is tam simple, innocent, foolish? Why is the fourth child not able to ask- is it age, developmental? Is there another reason they cannot ask?
Others see the four children not really as four individuals, but as four characteristics that we all have at one time or another. One Haggadah uses a coloured collage illustration to show parts of all four children in each of the four characters. Do we all have these children inside us? Or is this a developmental chart? Look at the illustrations of several Haggadot. Often the children are portrayed from eldest to youngest. The one who does not know how to ask is invariably portrayed as an infant or very young child; the simple child- somewhat older, the 'Rasha' the rebelious teenager, and the wise, the young adult (or older). The Haggadah text (nor the Torah text) however gives any indication of age/maturity. It is fascinating to take a survey of haggadot and compare their illustrations. After all, how does one choose to portray characteristics such as wise, wicked and simple?! (See this collection from A Different Night).
Others portray all four as adults: the 'wise' is typically shown as observant- wearing kippah, studying Torah; the 'Wicked' is portrayed as rejecting the Haggadah's values -in the socialist kibbutz Haggadah as the city capitalist, in the traditional Haggadah as the secular rationalist. In older Haggadot the 'wicked' character is portrayed as a soldier!? or smoking!? Others see the four as four generations: Four generations ago was the 'zeide' who knew, then the generation that rejected, but still knew; their kids were 'simple' only able to ask 'what is this? and the last generation is so disconnected it is unable to even ask the question. Some have suggested that in our generation we even have a fifth child. Why is the fifth child not in the Hagaddah? Because this child is not even at the Seder.
Bonus activity: Try reading the Four Children passage from each of the children's perspectives!
Some harder questions: When we stop taking the text at face value, and begin to delve deeper, more questions emerge. How is it that the individuals are labeled before they have even asked the question?! And how is it that by asking a question (if at the Seder the whole point is to encourage questions) is the second child considered 'wicked?' Is his question SO terrible? Aren't we allowed to ask, 'why is this relevant?' What makes the wise child so wise? Note that in both the Haggadah AND the biblical text the answers do not seem to relate to his question. The 'wise' child seems to be asking about everything, but the simple child only doesn't know 'this.' Is the wise child arrogant (Abrabanel)?
So what do we make of all this? Typically, we read the four children passage as a pedagogical reminder that our listeners each have different needs. We must tell the story according to our 'audience.' Begin where the listener is. (In other words, the salesperson must not become so absorbed with the salespitch that they forget their customer!)
David Arnow reverses the traditional understanding and suggests that the passage can remind us what not to do! He argues that we see in the text that the children are labelled(!) before they have even opened their mouths. How often do we 'label' (pejoratively) an opponent before hearing their opinion! Then, we commandeer tradition. "The Torah says..." but in fact the Torah says no such thing. It is only our interpretation! We present our position with an authoritative voice. Then we fiddle with the facts: The wise child says 'etchem' in the biblical text, but it makes no sense- so many Haggadot edit it to read 'otanu'. Finally, we silence healthy dissent. A sobering analysis.
It makes me wonder: what if parents were so classified?