SON, WE NEED TO TALK
On four occasions the Torah instructs us to tell our children about the exodus from Egypt. As the Passover Haggadah points out, each reference represents one of the "four sons": the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son that doesn't even know how to ask.
On four occasions the Torah instructs us to tell our children about the exodus from Egypt. As the Passover Haggadah points out, each reference represents one of the "four sons": the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son that doesn't even know how to ask. In this week's portion we find the instruction regarding the wise son. The Torah states, "When your son will ask you tomorrow, saying: 'What are the testimonies and the statutes and the laws which Hashem our G-d commanded you?' You shall answer him, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and Hashem took us out of Egypt. . .and Hashem commanded us to perform all these decrees. . .and it will be a merit for us if we are careful to perform all of the commandments before Hashem as He commanded us'" (Deuteronomy 6:20-25).
The Torah itself does not actually distinguish among any of the four sons. The distinction is inferred by our sages from the terminology used by the Torah in the four instances. Thus, we are taught in the Haggadah that when the Torah says, "When your son will say to you: 'What is this service for you?'" (Exodus 12:26), it refers to the wicked son, since he excludes himself from the Jewish people by saying "for you". However, this deduction presents a problem, for when we look at the wise son's question he also seems to be excluding himself by saying "which Hashem commanded you"! What is the difference between the wise son's question and that of the wicked son?
Examining the wise son's question will help clarify this seeming contradiction. The wise son makes reference to the commandments as testimonies, statutes, and laws. These represent the three categories into which the commandments of the Torah can be divided: "Testimonies" refers to those commandments which commemorate events and circumstances in our national history (such as the holidays, Shabbat, brit milah), as well as commandments like tefillin and tzitzit, which are "testimonies" to Hashem. "Statutes" refers to commandments which are not explained by reason, like the burning of the Red Heifer and the laws of Kashruth. "Laws" refers to commandments which human reasoning and decency would dictate by themselves, such as the prohibitions against murder and stealing.
This division between the commandments is what bothers the wise son: Being "wise", the son has attained a level of unbounded obedience to the mitzvot wherein his fealty to Hashem and the Torah is not expressed merely through his understanding and appreciation of the commandments. The wise son rises to a higher, super-rational level and dedicates himself to their performance, even when he doesn't fully understand. Why, asks the wise son, is there division between commandments? What difference does it make whether a mitzvah is in this category or the other; they all must be kept equally! The focus should be on forging a connection with the Commander, not the commandment. The categorizing of commandments, proclaims the wise son, is only necessary "for you", for those people who are not cognizant of the greatness of Hashem; if, however, one is wise, what is the purpose of these categories?
We are commanded to reply to the wise son that Hashem brought us out of Egypt into the land of Israel in order that we may serve Him. For this purpose we were given the Torah and its mitzvot. They provide us with a structure that will enable the Divine, infinite oneness to permeate the worldly existence. In other words, we are to create an atmosphere that will combine the unlimited, infinite Divinity, with the finite, earthly world in which we exist. To fulfill this purpose, we perform the mitzvot in this world by transforming mundane, physical objects into holy ones. These mitzvot with which we accomplish this fusion are divided into three categories, each relating to a different dimension of our personalities. This division allows us to develop a significant appreciation for their intricacies and details. On the other hand, the wicked son alludes to the mitzvot as a "service", or a burden, and he adds the words "for you", implying that no part of this service is for him. The Passover Haggadah informs us of what becomes of Him: "Had you been there you would not have been redeemed."
The Haggadah tells us to answer the wise son this way: "Tell to him the laws of Passover: One may not eat any dessert after the afikomen - the Pascal offering." The purpose of this law is to enhance our appreciation of the sacrificial meat. In other words, we are to enjoy this mitzvah to its full, physical capacity. Similarly, we are to do whatever it takes to "enjoy" and appreciate fully the observance of Torah and mitzvot.
This also explains why the question of the wise son is reported in this week's Torah portion, while the other three sons are mentioned in the book of Exodus in Parshat Bo. This week's portion contains the description of the Ten Commandments and a reference to the behavior expected of the Jewish people when they arrive in the land of Israel. When we are faced with both the Divine infinity of the Torah and the finite worldliness of the land, it is necessary to explain to the wise son, as well as to the rest of the Jewish people, our mission in life: To introduce G-dlines and holiness into this world.
Rabbi Yossi Lew is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Tefillah, youth coordinator at Chabad of Georgia, and a teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy middle school.
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