Thoughts on the 4 Children

Passover is still a couple months away, but I was thinking about the Four Children this morning, and specifically about the Wicked Child and the Wise one. I have spent much of my life identifying the Wise Child with more ritually observant Jews and the Wicked one with a sort of New Atheist arrogant secularism, but this morning it occurred to me that the Wicked Child’s question doesn’t actually imply that he’s less observant than the parent. On the contrary, the Wicked Child’s question represents attitudes of distancing and separation that are universal, whereas in this framework the Wise Child can represent a desire to be fully included.

As most Jews are more than aware, in more ritually observant circles there is a tendency to look at more liberal Jews and their services with contempt and ask, “but if you’re not going to do things the Right way, isn’t your observance essentially meaningless? What does any of this even mean to you?”

A quick reminder: you’re instructed to punch the Wicked Child in the teeth.

After that, you are to make the point that YOU, and not he, have been redeemed. He chooses not to identify as your fellow Jew but as a superior one, a more enlightened one, one who is separate from the community, and so he cannot share in its redemption. To put the message in more forceful and profane terms: either we’re all Jewish together, or he can fuck off.

Compare this to the Wise Child, whose question is not about the inherent worth of the seder but about the how of it all. This child doesn’t ask why you don’t just give up if you’re not doing things up to his standards, he asks, “ok, how do we do this?” He wants to be included in YOUR seder, and to do it right by your standards. You are instructed to include him and teach him your ways.

As always, we should see ourselves in all four children: in the Simple one’s wonder; the Unable-to-Ask child’s need for someone else to start the conversation; in the Wise child’s desire to be included and up to speed; and in the Wicked one’s urge to dismiss others and their benighted ways. This year, I submit that it doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum of ritual observance when it comes to the lessons of the Four Children, only your approach to the community of the seder. Some of my favorite Wise children have been outsiders who became Jewish later or not at all, who approached our rituals and our culture with interest and respect. Some of my least favorite Wicked children have been me.

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