The wise son, what does he say? Or perhaps the question should be phrased a little differently: The son who asks the following question, why is he considered wise?
The wise son, what does he say? Or perhaps the question should be phrased a little differently: The son who asks the following question, why is he considered wise? Every year we read this same paragraph from the Passover Haggadah: We ask what the wise son says, then we quote a verse from the Torah in which a son asks his father a question, and we conclude the paragraph with the answer we should give to this son. The son's question is as follows: "What are these testimonies, statutes, and ordinances which Hashem, our G-d, has commanded you?" And every year we give the same puzzling answer: "You shall explain to him all the laws of Passover, to the very last detail about the Afikoman."
If we study the wise son's question in the context of the passage in the Torah where it appears, perhaps we can gain a greater understanding of what is going on. The verses read as follows (Deuteronomy 6:17-25):
"You shall surely observe the commandments of Hashem, your G-d, and His testimonies and His decrees that He commanded you. You shall do what is fair and good in the eyes of Hashem, so that it will be good for you, and you shall come and possess the good land that Hashem swore to your forefathers, to thrust away all your enemies from before you, as Hashem spoke. If your child asks you tomorrow, saying, 'What are the testimonies and the decrees and the ordinances that Hashem, our G-d, commanded you?' You shall say to your child, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. Hashem placed signs and wonders, great and harmful, against Egypt, against Pharaoh, and against his entire household, before our eyes. And he took us out of there in order to bring us, to give us the land that He swore to our forefathers. Hashem commanded us to perform all these decrees, to fear Hashem, our G-d, for our benefit, all the days, to give us life, as this very day. And it will be a merit for us if we are careful to perform this entire commandment before Hashem, our G-d, as He commanded us.'"
The question is, why is this son considered wise? Furthermore, why does the Haggadah offer a different answer to the son than the Torah itself gives?
Understanding these verses in context, we can gain insight as to why this son is considered wise. This son is asking questions that his ancestors never needed to ask. His ancestors saw the direct correlation between their actions and their reward. They saw firsthand how Hashem took them out of Egypt and performed for them great miracles. They saw Hashem fulfill His promise by bringing the Jewish people into the land of Israel and throwing out their enemies from before their very eyes. There was no need for our ancestors to ask why we should keep these laws. It was obvious, for when the Jews kept the laws, they saw open miracles before their eyes. When Hashem says that there will be a time in the future that your son will ask these questions, perhaps He is saying that there will be a time when Jews will not see open miracles (like today) as they did in days of old. The people may wonder why they should keep the mitzvot.
The Haggadah gives us the answers on how to address those who don't understand the significance of these holy laws. Firstly, the Haggadah is telling the teacher about the son that he will be dealing with. The teacher should not think that because the son does not know the significance of these mitzvot, that he is not wise. On the contrary, he is considered wise because he has the desire to learn what he does not yet know. He is wise because he is a thinker who wonders why old laws and strange traditions should apply in a modern day, when it seems there are no longer open miracles. This is the wise son. This is exactly why the Torah gives the answer that it does, to show the son that the safeguarding of these laws is still significant and applicable today. Hashem told us that we should "perform all these decrees, to fear Hashem for our benefit, all the days, to give us life."
The Torah provides a beautiful answer to this wise son. So why does the Haggadah choose to give its own answer? I think that there is room to say that the answer of the Haggadah, "You shall explain to him all the laws of Passover, to the very last detail about the Afikoman," is a summary of the ideas that the Torah is trying to relate. The Haggadah is reminding the wise son that Hashem took us out of Egypt on condition that we would observe His mitzvot in the future. There is significance in all the laws, they even apply tonight, even at this table where you are sitting.
This short paragraph of the wise son is teaching us a very important lesson. There are many people out there yearning to do mitzvot, if only it would have some significance to them. Many of us have been blessed with being taught the importance and beauty of living a life of Torah since childhood. Others of us have been fortunate to have learned these lessons later in life. As people who understand the importance of these mitzvot, we are able to be a teacher. But teacher, you must remember that this was a gift given to us. Do not look down upon these seekers of knowledge. They are the wise ones. Teach them the meaning and significance within Judaism. Teach them to strive in areas in which we always take for granted. Allow this wise son to inspire you, to always strive to attain higher levels in commitment and holiness.
Fisher, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta and Yeshiva University
in New York, writes from Israel.