During Passover, a child shared with me a powerful insight about the “Four Sons.” She said that the four sons aren’t four different people – rather, all of us can, at times, become each of these children. We all have a bit of the chacham (wise), rasha (evil), tam (simple) and she’eino yodea l’shol (unquestioning) within us.
This insight reminded me of the 15th-century Spanish commentator Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel, who explained that the rasha and chacham have the same intellect. The lesson is that the very same tools can be used for good or ill. The chacham uses his knowledge to commit himself to tradition, the rasha uses his brainpower to flee from our community.
Extending Abarbanel’s idea, we can look at the four sons along two axes. There is the axis of positive or negative disposition and the axis of intellectual commitment. The chacham has both intellect and goodness. The rasha has intellect but no goodness. The tam has goodness but no intellect. The sheino yodea l’shol lacks both intellect and goodness. This four sons graph can help us understand many problems. Intellect is not enough to solve problems – good motivation is just as important. But while goodness is necessary, it is insufficient. If you want to do great things, you will need talents of the mind and the body.
Oftentimes, we school our children along the axis of intellect and talent. Yet, the world of moral improvement – the distance that separates the chacham from the rasha – is ignored. The truth is that we must seek not just to raise talented and successful children, we must raise moral and good adults. We must judge our own lives not just by our physical and material accomplishments, but also by our character development and moral virtues. The rasha thinks only about what is written in his resume; the chacham thinks also about what will be said in his eulogy.
While we generally think of the four sons as being specific to Passover, the lesson that each of our children thinks in unique ways is relevant year round. This year, the ever-hot debate about what it means to be pro-Israel in Canada makes speaking about the four sons especially important on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
The four sons graph can help us understand our relationship to the State of Israel. During its early years, we, as North American Jews, could support the state of Israel as a tam, rallying behind Israel with the simple faith that the Jewish state was good and its enemies bad. This unflinching and often unsophisticated support united our community. We loved to hear over and over again about the mighty arm of the Israel Defence Forces and its moral perfection.
But now a new child has been born who has heard other stories about Israel. This child is sophisticated and smart, and finds simple arguments about moral perfection off-putting. She asks, “Why should I support a state in which Arabs are second-class citizens, where Ashkenazim hate Sephardim, where the ultra-Orthodox avoid serving the state, and where the rabbinate controls issues of Jewish status?”
She goes to university and joins the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. “Your state is illegitimate,” she says to the community from which she was born.
This child looks at what is wrong with the State of Israel, and asks, “What is all of this to you?”
And the reality is: this child is a growing part of our community. Yet, as problematic as this child’s statements and opinions may be, at least she is engaged in questioning. She is a part of the Jewish quest for truth.
Meanwhile, this child has a sibling who does not care about the story of Jewish destiny and Israel, at all. She is not interested in visiting Israel or reading about the Jewish state. Questions of Jewish identity and survival are irrelevant. She won’t even waste her time to ask the question, “Why should a small country thousands of miles away concern me?”
That leaves one last child: the chacham. Who is the chacham? She is both smart and committed to Israel, but her commitment is not simplistic. She recognizes that Israel is composed of human beings who make mistakes. She understands that Israel has police officers for a reason – there are criminals in Israel like in any other state. There are criminals on the streets and in business offices, and sometimes even in army uniforms. Yet, she knows that with all its faults Israel is our greatest hope, and that Israel’s foundations are built upon principles of nationhood that are as legitimate as those of any other state.
The lesson here is that we cannot love Israel if we do not know Israel. We often speak about the centrality of Jewish education. Now, we must also speak about the importance of Israel education. If we teach our children to invest their time and their resources in Israel, they will come to develop deeper connections to it.
Jewish nationalism began around seder tables in Egypt, thousands of years ago. Every generation must sit at its own seder table and confront the challenges of Jewish nationhood in its day. The Zionism that we received from our parents was simple and wholesome, but the Zionism that we pass on to our children must be sophisticated and noble.
Rabbi Chaim Strauchler is the spiritual leader of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation in Toronto.