While the Seder is about transmitting memories and identity to our children, the Haggada wisely acknowledges that there is no one size fits all when it comes to education.
When the wise son asks what the reasons behind our observance are, we give part of an answer, just a law really – אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן. The Sfas Emes explains that the starting point of observance is that the Torah is ours, and there needn’t be a loftier reason than that.
And yet, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch quipped that if you perform symbolic acts without bothering to understand the symbolism, you end up doing a bunch of strange things for literally no reason at all.
R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that we need to engage with the wise son, and stimulate his thinking. There are many reasons for everything that we do, and different reasons speak to different people. But the reasons are secondary to why we choose to be observant. There is no one reason, and he can find the ideas that speak to him.
To the wicked son, the Haggada offers an incredibly harsh rebuke – blunt his teeth and remind him that if he’d been in Egypt, he never would have left – הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם.” לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.
While our parents’ generation might have taken this very literally, it’s not necessarily as harsh as it seems.
R’ Shlomo Freshwater observes that before Sinai, people who went bad tended to stay that way, for example, the Flood generation, Yishmael, and Esav. So he’s fortunate to live in an era where he can make amends – אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.
As far as blunting his teeth – רשע has a numerical value of 570. Remove שניו – numerical value 366; and the result is 204, the numerical value of צדיק. Behind the cutesy numbers game lies a fundamental truth that the wicked son harbors bitterness and negativity, but if we just neutralize his bite and dig past the surface, there is a good person in there waiting to be recognized.
The simple son can’t get past shallow simplicity – “What is this?”. Yet we don’t talk down to him, and the Hagadda has us patiently explain the answer in a way he can process.
The Haggada tells us to say something to each son, but not to the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Instead of saying something in particular – the Hagadda just says to give him an opening – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ.
R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that creating an opening means cultivating curiosity – the entire Seder is full of strange customs and rituals to help do just that. The most wonderful and profound speech just doesn’t matter to someone who doesn’t get it, but it is also possible to nurture with silence.
Whatever challenges the wise, wicked, simple, and quiet sons all pose, at least they are at the Seder. They’re present and engaged in different ways, and we can work with that. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wonders about a fifth son – the one who isn’t at the seder because he’s given up.
We can recognize these archetypes in our friends and family, but they’re even true of ourselves at different times in our lives. Know yourself, know your family, and know how to tailor what needs to be said under the circumstances.