The Seder is the story of a journey, and the Haggadah is the guidebook. Through engaging with symbolic foods and meaningful text, we retell the story of the Exodus.
There are fourteen parts to the Seder, each one its own step in the journey. The section “Maggid” (“telling”) is dedicated to telling the story in dramatic fashion, and part of the drama is the parable of the four children.
The Torah tells us four times that we are to tell the story of the Exodus to our children. Since there can be no redundancies in Torah according to the ancient rabbis, they imagine that each command to tell the story to our children is an answer to a child with a different temperament. This midrash (commentary) is recorded in the Haggadah. Here is the traditional passage in its entirety:
The Torah speaks of four children–one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to ask.
The wise one (chacham)–what does he say? “What are the testimonies, and the statutes and the laws that Adonai our God commanded you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20). So you tell him about the laws of Pesach, that one may not eat anything whatsoever after the Pesach sacrifice.
The wicked one (rasha)–what does he say? “What is this service to you?” (Exodus 12:26). “To you”, and not to him. And since he excluded himself from the people at large, he denies the foundation of our faith. So you blunt his teeth and tell him, “It is because of this that God acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8). “For me”, and not for him; had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.
The simple son (tam)–what does he say? “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14). “Tell him, ‘with a strong hand God took us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery'” (ibid.).
As for the one who does not know how to ask (she’ano yodea lishol), you must begin for him, as it is written “and you shall tell your child in that day, saying: It is because of this that God acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).
Judging by the answers to the children, the wicked child and the one who does not know how to ask are one in the same. They receive the same answer because they both take themselves out of the story, albeit in different ways—the wicked consciously and the non-asker by indifference. On the other hand, the wise and the simple child put themselves into the heart of the story, albeit in different ways.
When we were young, perhaps we all imagined ourselves to be—or hoped ourselves to be—the wise child. Or even now as adults who admire wisdom and intelligence we tend to favor the first child. We all want to be the chacham.
But to be the chacham is not always to be prized.
The Hasidic master Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, in his work Ma’or Vashemesh, reflects on the story in Genesis of the serpent in the Garden tempting humanity with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The knowledge gained, he writes, is the wisdom of knowing good and bad, yet when one knows good from bad, one tends to pass judgment on his or her fellow human being:
We must not hold ourselves as so smart that we really know our fellow, and her unique path…And, surely when we perceive another’s deficiencies we do so out of haughtiness; we hold ourselves to be “something.” But, if we were truly humble, knowing our own deficiencies and twisted ways, we would consider our fellow as better than we. We would not look for their deficiencies at all. It is only because we see ourselves as “great” that another’s ways and words are not fit in our eyes. Jacob, our Father, had this quality: he was a “simple man (ish tam)”, who did not hold himself to be so smart (chacham) that he should assess another’s ways. (Ma’or Vashemesh, Bereshit. Trans. by Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Institute for Jewish Spirituality)
The chacham is arrogant, who judges others. The tam is humble, who does not.
Reflecting this back onto the Haggadah: the wise child’s question is focused solely on the correct practice of Passover, on all of the intricacies, the rules, the observances. He knows what is good or bad, what is right or wrong, and he will judge if it is not done right. And so he is answered only with the laws. He is unable to see beyond the what of Passover to the why of Passover. And if he doesn’t understand the why, then he is unable to understand redemption.
The simple child asks only, “what is this?” By asking the open-ended question, he does not invite or pass judgment. He simply opens himself to the “all of it,” the meaning of Passover, the possibility of redemption and the journey of transformation. Indeed, this is the answer to his query–God took us out of Egypt. There is no presumption, no leading question. Only the willingness to inquire and the humility to hear the answer.
Wisdom, the Ma’or Vashemesh teaches, is not always assigned but assumed. And when we assume our own wisdom, we fail to see beyond ourselves and open ourselves up to the wisdom that comes from others. The wise child of the Haggadah presumes to know all there is to know about Passover and therefore fails to grasp the true meaning of the festival.
However: Future redemption will come not from the wise who have the audacity to believe they know all the answers, but from the simple who have the humility to know that they do not.