Monday was the first night of Passover, celebrated with a Seder, a rambling retelling before dinner of the story of the exodus from Egypt. It’s so indirectly told, with so many side elements, that I never understood the narrative as a young child until my mother typed up her own version of the story on small pieces of paper stapled together.
I cherished that little homemade pamphlet, which made so much more sense than our Haggadah, or booklet that guides Jews through the service. That could be because my family used the deadly dull Maxwell House Haggadah (yes, by the coffee seller), with its stiff, archaic text. Wikipedia informs me that this classic has been in continuous print since 1932 but has been rewritten and updated. I can only pray they’ve made it readable.
The overarching message of any Haggadah is hopeful if bittersweet. Tyrants who break their word and feel threatened by minority groups can’t continue forever. The downtrodden who think they’ve been beaten can make their way to a better place with help. (Fortunately for the escaping Hebrews, no one had built a wall across the Red Sea.) Still, many innocent people suffer along the way (drops of wine drip from our fingers in sympathy for the Egyptians who suffered as a result of the 10 plagues).
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But some families are leaving out a less central section of the Haggadah, the one on the Four Sons (or Four Children, in the newer version).
The four children, according to the Haggadah, ask about the Seder in four different ways; adults, we’re told, are supposed to answer somewhat differently depending on how the question was framed. The wise child asks: “What is this all about?” That child wants details and adults are expected to deliver a full rundown, thus painfully extending the time it takes to get to the matzo ball soup. One child is “simple” and just asks what’s going on, and the third is too young to ask. Each gets a far more introductory response.
But there’s also the “wicked” child who asks: “What does this mean to you?” From this we’re to understand that the child sees herself as separate from and rejecting of the community and its history. The recommended response seems unduly harsh to most modern parents: “It’s because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt. Had you been there, you wouldn’t have been redeemed.” Why not to bring the kid on board.
Of course, with all these early texts, there are a million ways to interpret what’s going on here. But for this time, right now, there’s a particular poignancy to this exchange. Instead of calling this the story of the Four Children, I’m inclined to think of it as the Supposed Leader Who Can’t Handle A Challenge.
The kid doesn’t just want predigested information poured into her ears. She’s not going to accept something as true and meaningful based on someone’s say-so. Maybe the problem isn’t her sharpness of mind but the old Maxwell House text telling her what’s important without even a reasonable telling of the story. Maybe she’s really the No Fake News child. The Critical Thinking child. Much as certain people would like to banish her from the table, she has an important role in holding us accountable.
Maybe next year my family should bring the Four Children back but, a la Maxwell House, do a rewrite. In the battle against tyrants, the Critical Thinking child is to be celebrated. The one who challenges authority is the one who leads us to freedom of speech and thought.
The only problem is, we’d have that much longer to wait for the matzo ball soup.
Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.