Passover is coming soon. The first night is Wednesday, April 8 (15th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar). Jews will gather around tables for a meal and a Seder in which we will read from the Haggadah. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and directives for shelter-in-place, some may even do this virtually, observing distancing guidelines where warranted.
The Haggadah is a book containing a specific order (seder) of blessings, rituals, and most importantly: the telling (haggadah) of our Exodus from Egypt. Having been slaves, we were freed by God’s “outstretched hand and wondrous deeds.” From that seminal tale of our people’s history comes a host of ethical mitzvot (commandments) which are to inform our daily living because “we were slaves in the land of Egypt.”
During the course of the seder, we come upon the “four children,” who are presented by the rabbis of old, the originators of the Seder during the 1st-3rd centuries. The four children are: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one unable to ask. These four children are exceedingly different and often portrayed in artistic form to acknowledge the difference — or sometimes, the similarity. Ultimately: the four children are supposed to represent each of us, no matter our age. We, depending on where we are in life, are all of those four to some degree even though parts of our lives may reflect one child more than another.
Here is a summary of the section of the four children: The wise one asks about the laws and statutes which God has commanded. We answer this one’s question with all sorts of Passover rules. The wicked one says, “What is this service you are doing?” And then that child gets in all sorts of trouble for using the word “you.” He seems to exclude himself from the other seder-goers and the answer that comes back essentially says: by cutting yourself out by saying “you” (as opposed to “us”), then he would not have been redeemed from Egypt with the whole group. The simple one simply wants to know what the night is about and the one who doesn’t know to ask has no question, but the approach is to start telling that child the story from a basic level.
I am impressed the wicked child asks a question, an act supremely valued by the rabbis and Jewish custom. However, his specific question is presumed wicked, and the answer assumes he asked with an attitude of malevolence, lacking a sense of desire to be present at the Seder. As a child, I never wanted to read that part at the Seder, but I have come to understand the nuance of this question. My heart has grown, at times, more sympathetic to the wicked child. And, now, I relish the chance to read this child’s words and ask my own questions to frame his words.
Did anyone ever ask him why he was so angry?
Did anyone bother to realize he was asking because he may have been genuinely curious to hear from each of the participants — what the Seder means to them?
Maybe the response is so harsh to him because the person answering did not understand their own feelings toward the holiday and therefore lashed out and labeled his innocent question as “wicked.”
Over the course of the centuries, the four children have been depicted artistically in a myriad of ways. Various eras and regions of the world have shown the four children as young, old, abstract, religious, secular, brazen, kind, learned, unknowing, detached, devout, confused, curious, cruel, compassionate, approachable, distant, male, female and beyond binaries. To me, what matters most in the story of the four children? They are all present at the Seder. There is room for each child at the table. In fact, they are invited. While some questions are handled more adeptly than others — as are the answers — what matters is the welcoming of each soul for who and how that soul is feeling and living in that moment. Some of our kids — and some of the adults — are wise, some are wicked, some are simple and some simply don’t know to ask. Each needs to learn. Each needs to be heard. Each needs to listen. Each needs to find their voice and work with fellow participants to formulate answers.
And so it is for us to make sure our communities are open to members of the LGBTQ community — ready to welcome, to sit, to ask, to listen, to express interest and to search for meaningful answers as we create solutions to the myriad of challenges that we face in our world today. May we do so in peace and in good health.
Rabbi Mark Cohn is senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, N.C.