FOUR SONS, THREE ANSWERS
A close look at the discussion of the four sons in the haggadah reveals something very interesting. While each son asks (or does not ask) a different question, there are only three different answers that we are told to give them. The answer of "Ba'avur zeh asah Hashem li b'tzeiti mi-Mitzrayim" (Shemot 13:8) is given both to the wicked son and to the son who "does not know how to ask." Why is this so? Certainly if we adopt the view that part of this section of the haggadah is to teach us the lesson of answering each child according to who he is and what and how he is asking, how can we possibly give the same answer to two completely different children?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner, in his work Pachad Yitzchak, proposes one answer to this problem. He points out that the mitzvah of telling over the story of the Exodus on the night of Pesach has two components - telling it to others, and telling it over in question-and-answer form. These two components are not dependent on each other, as we know that one may ask himself questions about the story and work out the answers on his own. With regard to the four sons, there are two groups. In answering the wise and the simple son, a person fulfills both conditions - he both tells the story to others and he does so by answering their questions. On the other hand, when answering the wicked son and the son who does not know how to ask, there is only a fulfillment of the first condition, but not a fulfillment of the requirement for give-and-take. Why is this so? As far as the son who does not know how to ask, the answer is obvious - he does not ask, and thus there is no give-and-take. What about the wicked son? Although he asks a question, he does not ask one that seriously addresses the issues at hand. His question is one asked brazenly, more for the purpose of putting forth a challenge than for the purpose of arriving at a conclusion. There can be no true give-and-take with such a person. As such, he receives the same answer as the son who does not know how to ask., as in both cases the father only has the commandment to tell them the story. By contrast, the wise son and the simple son receive different answers. Their questions are sincere and are asked for the purpose of receiving a direct answer. As such, each one receives an answer that is appropriate to him and to his particular question.
Rav Yoseif Dov Soloveitchik cites theVilna Gaon, who has a slightly different approach to this question. The Gaon points out that the wicked son does not really receive any answer at all. Whereas the verses in the Torah that refer to the other sons use the phrase "v-higadeta l'vincha," and you shall tell your sons, the verse concerning the wicked son uses an indirect language - "va'amartem," and you shall say, without specifying who is told in this case. The words of the haggadah also bring out this point, where the answer to the wicked son is stated in the third person - if 'he' had been there 'he' would not have been redeemed. As the Vilna Gaon explains, this statement is addressed to the other children present, but not to the wicked son, who does not merit an answer of his own. The Rov points out that this statement of the Vilna Gaon is contained in the words of Rambam (Hil. Chametz U'Matzah 7:2), who describes how to answer three of the sons, but leaves out the answer that must be given to the wicked son. The Rov explains that this is precisely because the wicked son does not get an answer.
I think that it may be possible to suggest a slightly different answer. While the actual verse cited in the context of both the wicked son and the son who does not know how to ask is the same, the contexts are different. By the wicked son, we say that you should "smash his teeth" when answering him. Conversely, by the son who does not know how to ask we are told to "open up for him." There is a common idea that the son who does not know how to ask is considered to be wicked as well, as his problem is really that he does not want to ask. If this were to be true, then why would we need both sons? Obviously, there is a difference between the two. I believe that the difference may lie in these contexts, and through these two sons the haggadah teaches us an invaluable lesson about educating one's children. True, the son who does not know how to ask may be on the road to becoming a wicked son, yet he is not there yet. His potential has yet to develop fully, and thus there is still hope for him to become a wise son. As such., we give him the same answer that we give the wicked son, as a sign that in many ways he is insolent and stubborn and refuses to be taught. Yet, on the other hand, we "open up for him," we give him this answer in a way that will hopefully lead him to ask further questions. For the wicked son, we have all but given up hope - we tell him his answer in its fullest force and exclude him from the Exodus as he has already excluded himself. However, it is possible to take the exact same content and to transform it into a potentially positive step. We can turn the "smashing of teeth" into an "opening up," hopefully the beginning of a lifetime of inquisitiveness and searching for the truth of Torah.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
After reading off the list of the ten plagues, we read a most interesting line. We recite Rabi Yehuda's acronym for the plagues - D"TzaCH A"DaSh B"AChaV. The question raised by many of the commentaries is why this was necessary? Did Rabi Yehuda really not remember the ten plagues? Is his acronym anything so phenomenally earth-shattering that it merits mention in our seder?
The general approach taken to answering these questions is that the acronym serves as a way of categorizing the plagues. Many versions of this are offered, and the one that we will be focusing on is that of Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch. Before beginning, we should note that the tenth plague, the slaying of the first-born, does not figure in Rav Hirsch's answer (or the answer of many others). As it was intended as a means of freeing the Jews, and not a punishment for the Egyptians, it stands alone outside the other nine plagues. With that in mind, we will proceed to Rav Hirsch's commentary.
Rav Hirsch notes that there are three aspects to the slavery. The first is that of "geirut" - being a stranger in a foreign land. The Jews were not assimilated into Egyptian society and were rejected by their hosts. The second aspect is that of subjugation - to own slaves, one must believe that he is a better human being than the one that he is enslaving. The final aspect of slavery is the physical side, the backbreaking work that the Egyptians imposed on their Jewish laborers. According to Rav Hirsch, the acronym of Rabi Yehuda demonstrates how the Egyptians were not merely punished, but were punished for each of these three aspects separately.
The first plague in each group of three addresses the aspect of geirut. First, the Nile River, the lifeblood (no pun intended) of the mighty Egyptian empire, turned to blood. The ramifications of this plague were severe - without its river, the country could not survive. Additionally, the Nile was revered as a deity, and thus this plague hit home on a spiritual/emotional level as well. The next of these three, the plague of wild beasts, hit the Egyptians from a different angle. The Medrash tells us that no slave ever escaped from Egypt, due largely to their "border patrol" made of wild and ferocious animals. Now, Egypt's very security system was coming after them. Finally, there is the plague of hail. Egypt is located in a desert, and thus is rarely, if ever, subjected to any form of precipitation.. Suddenly, even the weather was changing on them. these three plagues combined to strike at the very heart and essence of Egyptian society and served to make them feel uneasy and out of place in their own land.
The second plague in each group of three served to punish the Egyptians for feeling superior to the Jews and subjugating them. Frogs are the most timorous of all creatures, who flee at the mere approach of a perceived enemy. Yet, now it was this very critter that was terrorizing the once-mighty Egyptians. In addition to the mere imagined sense of superiority, one feels that he is superior to another individual because he is financially better off that someone else. The plagues of pestilence and locust served to take care of that, destroying the two main forms of capital - livestock and produce.
Finally, Hashem went after the Egyptians' bodies. The plagues of lice, boils, and darkness (which we are told was a tangible darkness) all afflicted the Egyptians directly and forced them to feel the pain that they had been inflicting on the Jews for so long. Hashem's measure-for-measure punishment is not merely a loose description of His modus operandi, but describes a process that is very precise and exacting with those who wrong Him or his people.
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