The Four Parents
My personal preparation for Passover has for several years included conversations with teens and college students about what the holiday means to them and their families. My informants this year—a small and wholly unscientific sample of students at JTS’s Prozdor high school program—told me the same thing I have heard in previous years about the way their families celebrate the holiday: that the highlight of the seder is that it is held rather than what is said around the table. The family gathers, which is great; the family exhibits all its trademark affection, tensions, and mishegas, which young people observe carefully and will likely remember for life; the family eats, in fact stuffs itself; and very little of the Passover Haggadah is actually read, let alone discussed, either because there are small children present who cannot sit for very long or because there are grown adults present who cannot sit for very long. Either way, my informants reported sheepishly, theirs is not a traditional seder by any stretch of the imagination. That’s too bad, I said, and they agreed. Next year—not in Jerusalem but at college—they hope for a seder different from those they knew at home.
Let’s think for a moment, inspired by one of the seder’s most famous passages, about the four kinds of parents who are found around the seder table: wise, wicked, innocent, and not knowing how to ask. You should know, as we do so, that the “ur-seder” presented in the Mishnah does not mention the four sons at all; the Talmud Yerushalmi, by contrast, does mention them—though not in the same order as our Haggadah, or attached to the same proof texts. I shall take this divergence among the rabbis as license for a more radical reversal. Let’s make parents rather than children the objects of scrutiny here. Let’s offer value judgments about their behavior. Let’s give adults the responsibility for carrying the seder—and carrying forward the Jewish tradition of which the seder has long been a chief inspiration. I ask the Gen Xers, millennials, college students, and teens who are reading this column to discuss the following emended text with your elders if you can. I shall discuss the four types mentioned in the Haggadah in reverse order.
There are parents—perhaps yours—who do not know how to ask (or answer) the questions posed by the Haggadah—and do not want to know. They just don’t care one way or the other. “I don’t believe in this stuff,” they will declare if you ask them. “My grandparents did, back there in the shtetl, or as immigrants to the new world, but this is America, we are modern, and I don’t want to be a Jew like the ones with side curls. Besides: I remember childhood seders when my father and his brother would mumble through the whole thing while the women said not a word and we kids had to sit quietly for what seemed like hours. I kind of miss that generation at Passover, but there is no way I am going to be like them. My kids are not going to be that kind of Jew. No way. We keep the part of the holiday that really means something—the family, the meal, watching the kids grow up year by year—and leave the rest to the religious. It’s not my thing.”
There are parents who are totally innocent of any Passover experience. They did not grow up in homes where the holiday was celebrated in any fashion, except possibly a meal on the evening of the festival or an adjacent weekend evening. They have heard of the Exodus story, of course: may have seen the recent movie, know that for African-Americans this story empowered hope over many generations and gave rise to numerous Freedom Songs. Intermarried parents may in fact appreciate Passover more than some in-married Jews do, because the story is one they share. The journey from slavery to freedom is utterly universal. And lacking negatives from unpleasant childhood experience with Passover, they just might pick up the Haggadah and be struck by something: for example, the way the text opens with a call to share Passover with anyone who is hungry; to recognize that “this year we are slaves,” and to hope that next year “we may be free.” There is something in this story, this passage, that can grab virtually everyone. Is it true that we are slaves? Isn’t that a serious exaggeration? Or is the point—a student at the table might make it—that there are many forms of enslavement (addiction is one, abuse another), and we should perhaps expand our notion of what it means to be enslaved? Or is the point that we should expand our sense of “we”—and, once we do that, accept responsibility for people whom we had regarded until that point as a “them,” who are someone else’s problem? The innocent parent does question, you see, and therefore may learn even from his or her children.
The characterization of some parents as wicked (rasha) bothers me as much as the next person: were we to follow the Yerushalmi’s version of the text, they would be called—in a word not much less judgmental—“stupid.” (The Haggadah we use at my seder goes for the euphemism “contrary,” which in my view deprives the Haggadah of its intended force).This parent frustrates seder insiders and Jewish activists no end. The community is in crisis, Jews are threatened or persecuted, and the rasha stands aside. It’s just not his problem. One can understand why Jews do not agree on the best strategy for dealing with a difficult situation. One can admire those who show courage and forgive those who keep their heads down—we are only human—but it is hard to forgive those who declare that they don’t care what happens to the community. After the crisis has been averted, or after some in the community have been saved, and others have not, when the group gathers to recall the terror it experienced and gives thanks for its deliverance—along comes Mister Worldly-Wise or Miss Above-it-All ridiculing the group for doing so. They have better things to do with their time. There’s a good show on TV.
Wise parents—how many of them do we know? More than their children think, perhaps, especially when one considers that, unlike the laws of the Passover seder, which can be mastered down to the last detail, the art of good parenting is generally never mastered and is usually learned the hard way, by mistakes and successes, rather than from books. One thing wise parents do know: you’ve got to listen to your kids, who really do want to share their lives with you, and who can’t do that if you don’t find occasions for opening the door to them. Time in the car is one well-known occasion for moments of familial revelation. So is a ritual meal like the seder. You are talking about events that happened in Egypt a long time ago, or singing a song that has been passed down in your family over many seders, or asking whether it is fair that Egyptians had to suffer in order for Israelites to go free—and out it comes, if you are listening, the most surprising thing your daughter or son has said in months, or a piece of wisdom that takes your breath away, or a profession of love that you never thought that your child would utter.
Passover made that possible. It sat you down on a designated evening, and gathered the family in front of those symbols, so that all four kinds of parents, if only they are willing, can recognize things that they otherwise would not have known, and—just maybe—say thank you.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).