Each year, I have typically taken some time before Passover to study, reflect and meditate on the meaning of this holiday of redemption and emancipation. I have shared many of these thoughts on my Pesach blog, She'ayno Yode'a Li'shol, “for those unable to ask.” Unfortunately, this year I have been up to my eyeballs studying, reflecting and meditating on matters relating to developing some of the theory for my thesis, so I have had to forgo the more spiritually-based contemplation. But here is a bit of a blast from the past, contemplating one of the central parables of the Pesach seder, the parable of the four sons.
How do we engage all types of people – Wise, wicked, simple and ignorant? The fact is that all these aspects are present in everyone to a greater or lesser extent. The question is, how to know each “son”, or each aspect of ourselves. For each, we ask, mah hu omer? or, what does he say? But we can also interpret this question as, “what is he really saying?” or what is the real message of this aspect of ourselves.
The chacham or wise son asks the detailed question about the pronouncements, regulations and laws concerning Pesach. On first blush, this seems to be a reasonable quest for knowledge so that the wise one will be able to fulfil all the requirements of Halachah. But, sometimes, such detailed questioning serves another purpose. It is sometimes used in arrogance to demonstrate one's (self assessed) vast knowledge. In these cases, there is the risk that chacham may change into rasha - wisdom into wickedness. The wise son must take care to ensure that knowledge must reside in humility and an appreciation of one's own limits and capacity.
Rasha or wicked son is traditionally thought of as not really being interested in the answer to his question, but rather is using the questioning as a mockery, demonstrating his disdain for the spiritual journey of redemption that others are travelling. Immediately the wicked one is rebuked: "God did this for me when I went out of Egypt. You would not have been redeemed." We are at once told that such contrariness precludes redemption. But in considering ourselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt, we must realize that, in ancient times, no slaves were necessarily truly worthy, but all were liberated. How did this happen? The Children of Israel "cried out to God" and in this act of faith achieved redemption, regardless of their individual state or situation. The lesson from the answer provided to rasha now becomes interesting and hopeful: We will all eventually be redeemed; the only question is when. And by turning away from wickedness and our contrary nature, we can hasten the day for our personal redemption and liberation - whenever we individually choose to effect it.
The simple son, tam, asks a simple question, "what is this?" or mah zot? in Hebrew. The answer is equally simple, yet profound: With a strong hand did God take us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. In other words, this simple experience of the Pesach celebration is evidence of the strong hand of God.
Finally we come to the son who does not know how to ask a question. We are told that we have the obligation to effect a beginning for this son by saying that "this" - our life of freedom - is what God did for "me when I went out from Egypt." This son displays the latency of the divine spark in each of us. As soon as we realize that the miraculous abounds around us, we can awaken our own divine spirit that lies dormant.
Our objective at the seder is ultimately to achieve awareness of Divine Manifestation and thereby liberate ourselves from whatever enslaves us, as I noted earlier. The parable of the Four Sons gives us insight into ourselves, into the complexity of our inner, often conflicted, nature. We learn to be wise, but humble; that we can choose the time to effect our redemption; that true wisdom lies in embracing the simple, yet profound; that the spark of divinity lies within each of us, and it is up to us individually to ignite it. It is a marvellous and beautiful examination of the nature of humanity.
To you all, I wish a Pesach kasher v'sameyach - a kosher, joyous and fulfilling celebration of Passover. Yehi ratzon, may it be His will, that we all will achieve personal awareness, liberation and redemption. Chag sameyach!
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