While the Seder is about transmitting memories and identity to our children, the Haggadah wisely acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all for education, suggesting a tailored approach to respond to each child.
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 this is the law. 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. So we tell him the law with no reason; there is no one single reason, he can search for the ideas that speak to him.
To the wicked son, the Haggadah 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 quite literally, it’s not necessarily as harsh as it seems!
R’ Shlomo Freshwater observes that before Sinai, people who lost their way tended not to find their way back, for example, the generation of the Flood story, Yishmael, and Esav, among many others. But in a post-Sinai era, this son is fortunate to live in an era where he can make amends. If he’d lived in that ear, he might not have been so lucky! – אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.
As far as blunting his teeth, it is famously noted that רשע has a numerological value of 570. Subtract שניו, numerological value 366; and the result is 204, the numerological value of צדיק. Behind the cutesy numbers game lies a serious truth. Some children harbor bitterness, negativity, and resentment. Find a way to neutralize the bite, and dig past the surface because there is a wonderful person in there waiting to be recognized.
The simple son can’t get past shallow simplicity – “What is this?” But, the Haggadah cautions, don’t talk down to him. Rather, patiently explain the answer in a way he can process.
The Haggadah suggests what to say to each son, but not to the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Instead of saying anything in particular – the Haggadah just says to give him an opening – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ.
R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches 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 won’t matter to someone who doesn’t get it, but it is also possible to nurture with silence – חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ.
Whatever challenges the wise, wicked, simple, and quiet child may 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 we’ve given up on him.
We can recognize these archetypes in our friends and family, but we may even recognize them in ourselves at different phases of our lives. So take the Haggadah’s advice to heart. Don’t be rigid; know yourself, know your audience, and tailor your message accordingly.