While the Seder is about transmitting memories and identity to our children, the Haggada acknowledges that there is no one size fits all answer to education.
When the wise son asks what the reasons behind our observance are, we give part of an answer – אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן. The Sfas Emes explains that the beginning and end of observance is the Torah is ours to keep – it is who we are and what we do. There needn’t be a loftier reason than that.
And yet, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch quipped that if you perform symbolic acts without understanding 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, but he can find the reasons 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 prior to 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 the 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; and 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 open for him – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ.
R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that it means we need to cultivate curiosity – the entire Seder is full of strange customs and rituals to do just that. There is no point in just giving a speech or forcing the issue, it is possible to nurture with silence.
Whatever challenges the wise, wicked, simple, and mute 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.