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Shinewald: The four sons’ view of Israel

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A fragment of a Passover Haggadah in the Cairo Genizah. (YOUNES AND SORAYA NAZARIAN LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA/THE FRIEDBERG GENIZAH PROJECT)

With Passover right around the corner, now’s a good time to revisit the Haggadah’s famous four sons and apply them to Israel today.

The wise son comes first. He is the quintessential Jewish role model. But when it comes to Israel, what does it mean to be wise?

For starters, it means recognizing the complete centrality of Israel to Jewish identity and possibility. Simply put, the Jewish people are no longer imaginable without the State of Israel. Israel is part of us and the wise son understands this.

Being wise, this son also recognizes that Israel is not perfect. He knows that while Israel can be inspiring, it can also be infuriating. But the wise son loves Israel all the same. He understands that true love is complicated and he fights for a better Israel because of his primal love for the Jewish state, not despite it. In short, the wise son is a strong Zionist, but a critical one, too.

The second son is wicked. He lacks his wise brother’s nuance and only sees the bad. This son denies the fundamental meaning that Israel represents, not just questioning the miracle of the Jewish state, but rejecting it. Whereas his wise brother sees Israel, warts and all, the wicked son only sees the warts.

Israel’s many serious deficiencies anguish the wise son. For the wicked son, though, these shortcomings are all that matter. Sometimes he gets so agitated that he loses it and even questions Israel’s right to exist.

The simple son, on the other hand, is the counterpoint to his wicked brother. Whereas the wicked son only sees Israel at its worst and is wilfully blind to its successes, the simple son only sees Israel at its best and is wilfully blind to its failures. The wicked son is driven by his hatred for Israel; the simple son by his love for it.

But the simple son’s very simplicity prevents a nuanced, complex love like that of his wise brother. His is more an infatuation.

For the simple son, therefore, Israel is always right. In his intense passion, the simple son constantly defends the honour of his beloved, conflating Israel’s critical friends with its enemies. Like a brutish, jealous lover, he angrily defends her against anyone who thinks differently.

The final son does not know how to ask. Tired of endless war and conflict in and around Israel, exasperated by a self-appointed Diaspora leadership that models itself on the simple son and seduced by the promise of the good life in Canada, the final son cares less and less about Israel and the Jewish people. He indifferently drifts into complete assimilation.

These four sons will soon gather at our Passover seders. Yet their interactions are so predictable that we could script them in advance: the first three sons will argue, while the fourth will silently sigh to himself and wonder why he bothers showing up in the first place.

Our job is to engage the fourth son and show him the beauty and meaning of a rich and full Jewish life, which includes Israel.

Because of his self-hatred, the wicked son is incapable of doing this. The simple son, by contrast, will harp on how perfect Israel is – the very rhetoric already driving his brother to despair. These two sons care more about the fight itself than about strengthening Israel and deepening our Jewish lives.

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But the wise son can rise to the occasion. He can show his brother – all his brothers, actually – that no one has a patent on authentic Judaism, that each of us has an equal place in our community and that we all actually agree that we need a just, secure Israel that’s at peace with its neighbours.

That, too, is why he is wise. This Passover, and always, let us all strive to be the wise son.

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