Four children at the table: What a concept!

9 Apr

Since it’s Pesah, there’s a great story about a prominent British Jew who is informed that Queen Elizabeth intends to knight him. The queen’s protocol officials prepare him for the ceremony and instruct him to recite certain Latin words just before being knighted.

On the day of the ceremony, the man is very nervous and, sure enough, when he approaches the queen, he forgets the Latin expression. As precious seconds tick by, the only non-English words that he knows pour out of him: “Mah nishtanah ha-laila ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot?” The queen is confused. She turns to her protocol officer and asks, “Why is this knight different from all other knights?”

At the seder we empower the youngsters at our seder to ask questions and learn. Shortly thereafter, we read in the Haggadah about the four sons, or the four children. This passage reminds us that at least four different kinds of people are invited to the seder. We traditionally call these children wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.

Each of these children has his or her flaws. And yet they are all at the table. They are all seeking to engage in the discussion in some way, each on his or her level.

Each child has a more complex personality than meets the eye. Consider for a moment the Rasha (often translated as ‘wicked’).

Rasha, mah hu omer? Mah ha-avodah ha-zot lachem? Lachem v’lo lo. Ul’fi
shehotzi et atzmo min hak’lal, kafar ba-ikar. V’af atah hakheih et shinav, ve-emor lo.
Ba-avur zeh, asah Adonai li, b’tzeiti mimitzrayim, li v’lo lo. Ilu hayah sham, lo hayah

The Rasha asks: “What does this ritual mean to you?” (Exodus 12:26) By using the expression “to you” he excludes himself from his people and denies God. Shake his arrogance and say to him: “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt…” (Exodus 13:8) “For me” and not for him — for had he been in Egypt, he would not have been freed.

The very term “rasha” is difficult to translate: As noted in the Haggadah “A Night to Remember (Mishael Zion and Noam Zion, eds.), “‘[W]icked’ and ‘evil’ are very harsh, uncompromising terms for a child. ‘Rebellious,’ ‘mischievous,’ ‘recalcitrant,’ ‘chutzpadik,’ ‘impolite,’ ‘vilde haye,’ ‘naughty,’ ‘troublesome,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘problematic’ or ‘alienated’ are also possible” (45).

These adjectives are more descriptive and less judgmental than wicked or evil. After all, why would we be expected to have at our table someone who was truly wicked? Our tradition puts great stock in questions, and we have a seat at our table for someone who will do just that. In a sense, he may be the truest yodea lish’ol, the one who knows how to ask the sharpest questions.

In our current society, I am concerned about how we talk to one another, particularly within the Jewish community. We all know the old saw about where there are three Jews there are three opinions. It seems that increasingly we have multiple opinions, but people with divergent views avoid talking to each other or even sharing the same space. A case in point is the recent annual conference of J Street, the lobbying organization that describes itself as “Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace.”

Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, was slated to speak at J-Street’s annual conference last month where some 1,000 Jewish college students from across the country were in attendance. However, almost at the last minute, he cancelled. His reason was that Saeb Erekat, an official with the Palestinian Authority, was slated to speak during the conference, though at a different time. Fingerhut said that due to inflammatory statements Erekat had made in the past about Israel, he would not appear at the same conference. I was disappointed by Fingerhut’s decision. I think it was his job to be there. As he himself said, he was going to speak at a student-only session to thank students for their fight against the anti-Israel Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement and to encourage them to continue this important work. Fingerhut’s absence was a missed opportunity to engage in dialogue with students whose outlook might not be in lockstep with the board and funders of Hillel. If the leader of Hillel won’t speak to 1,000 Jewish students who care deeply about Israel, then who will speak to them? If they are not welcome to sit at the table with the organized Jewish community, at whose table will they sit? If they are labeled “Rasha,” wicked, they may well opt out, and this will be a disaster for the Jewish people.

As disappointed as I was by Fingerhut’s decision, I am just as concerned when the left shuns divergent view points as the right. We might call it opinion cleansing. I am not a fan of J Street. I believe that it’s in Israel’s best interest to pursue and ultimately achieve the goal of two states for two peoples so that Israel will remain a Jewish democratic state in peace and security. Yet, in pursuing their vigorous two-state agenda, J-Street has shunned centrist points of view, including, most notably, Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz notes that he has never been invited to speak at a J-Street event, even though he supports the two-state solution. As Dershowitz wrote an op-ed in Ha’aretz last year:

“[J Street] seeks to attract centrist members by advocating the two-state solution, an aggressive stance towards peace negotiations and criticisms of Israel’s settlement policies. These are positions I fully support, and if they were J Street’s only positions, I would have joined that organization many years ago. But in an effort to expand leftward, particularly hard leftward, it has taken positions that undercut Israel’s security and that virtually no Israeli center-leftists support.”
Dershowitz notes further:

“When J Street invites BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) supporters and those [who] oppose Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people to speak at its events, it claims that it does not necessarily support these positions, but it believes in encouraging its members to hear views that are different from its official positions. That is total nonsense. J Street only wants people to hear views to the anti-Israel hard left of its position. It categorically refuses to allow its members to hear views that are more centrist and more pro-Israel, such as my own.”
On this Pesah, this Festival of Freedom, there is much to be concerned about in the world such as a nuclear-armed Iran, a Middle East crumbling under the scourge of militant Islam, and Israel’s increased isolation among the family of nations. It is easy to be frightened by the unknown that awaits us, and we may be inclined to wall ourselves in among like-minded people. The Passover Haggadah challenges us that to be truly free we must move beyond our comfort zones and engage in discussion with people from different points of view. The Rasha is sitting at our table. Rather than alienate the Rasha with labels and creating distance, let’s reframe who the Rasha is. The Rasha sits opposite the “Sh’eino Yodea Lish’ol,” the one who does not know how to ask a question. Let’s rename the Rasha the “Yodea Lish’ol,” the one who knows how to ask. If we are lucky enough that he or she is sitting at our table, let’s not be dismissive. Let’s listen, because chances are such a person cares deeply about the Jewish future.

Through having open conversations at our seder table and throughout the year, I pray that the Jewish people will model that a free people is not afraid of disagreement. We sit at the same table with respect for one another as we challenge the ideas of those around us and listen to their challenges to us. Our Haggadah provides the Jewish people with a template for modeling respectful dialogue for our society. May God give us strength to fulfill this sacred duty.

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