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This week we begin the celebration of Passover with our Passover Seders. One of the earlier parts of the Seder is the story of the four sons, one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask. Last year, while researching the issues in writing the Haggadah, I could not figure out the history or the halakah of this passage being included in the Seder. All I could find was the passage in Maimoindes' Mishnah Torah noting we should say it. As to where it came from, I had no idea.
But in the year that followed, I took Rabbinic Hebrew, and learned much not just about the nuances of the language, but about other texts I had never heard of before. Among these were some midrashic texts that were relatively unknown to those of us who only know English. Indeed they are so unknown they are not even considered "standard" midrashic texts and hard to find even in Hebrew collections. Our standard and primary midrash, easily found in English, is Midrash Rabbah, which is commentary to the texts of the torah and the Megillot. Yet there are others, some of which concentrate on legal commentary instead of story, as does midrash Rabbah. Two of these, the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, and P'sikta Zutra, indeed have the passage of the four sons. In my research this year I also learn how to access and read these books, and thus learned more about the four sons.
The first occurrences are in these midrash, written during the time of the rabbis of the mishnah, making the passage almost 1900 years old. It does find it's way into early liturgy, including the close to 1000 year old Mazhor Vitry one of the oldest records of liturgy of early Ashkenaz in Germany and France, contemporary with Rashi among others. While there is not a complete translation yet of this work, the author of the recently released novel Rashi's Daughters is currently translating this medieval prayer book and guide to living a Jewish life. The four sons is also included a few hundred years later in Maimonides works, indicating this was not only a tradition among the Ashkenaz but even the Sephardic Jews as well.
In all of these there have been mere cosmetic changes or additions in the text of the four sons for close to two thousand years. Within the last forty, there have been changes, from very different sources. From those concerned with gender inclusion, there has been movement to change "sons" in translation to the more gender neutral "child" which, in the case of Hebrew is a valid translation. Yet the bigger change has been the inclusion of a fifth child.
I first became aware of a fifth child in the mid 1980's, when my mom brought home an article from a Jewish magazine that had a piece to include in Seders called The Fifth Son. Written by Irving Greenberg (and can be found in Appendix B of his book The Jewish Way) it was a piece intended to be read before Elijah was let in. However, in our family we always placed it in the position of a fifth child.
This fifth child was the victim of the holocaust, who did not survive to ask the question. The piece quotes another part of the Haggadah which records a debate about why we mention Passover at night we celebrate Passover, taken from B. Brachot 12b
The exodus from Egypt is to be mentioned [in the Shema'] at night-time. Said R. Eleazar b. Azariah: behold I am about seventy years old, and I have never been worthy to [find a reason] why the exodus from Egypt should be mentioned at nighttime until ben Zoma expounded it: for it says: that you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. [had the text said,] 'the days of thy life' it would have meant [only] the days; but 'all the days of thy life' includes the nights as well.
The night of the Haggadah and Talmud becomes the Night of Elie Wiesel in this piece, the darkest times of our existence. We must celebrate both in the good times and bad, Greenberg argues, to honor the memory of the victims of the holocaust.
Another kind of fifth child came from an entirely different source, that of the late Lubabvitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (z"l). As early as 1957 he mentioned the fifth son of the Passover Seder, the one who refused to be there. He noted that all the children, even the wicked son, showed up at the table with very different views and ideas and learning styles. Yet more and more often there were those who just weren't there. In the 1960's he laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the civil religion of Judaism, the Jewish Federation and their brand of secular Judaism. But his concern was not to scorn the fifth children, but to do what was necessary to bring back those children to the Seder table and religious observance, before everyone was a fifth child.
I came across the Rebbe's writings on the subject many years ago when I was researching my own meditation on the four sons. Given the words of total scorn and rejection that my family's Haggadah had against the son who asked the question "What does this service mean to you?" Every Passover, I always felt I didn't belong at the table nor did I deserve to leave Egypt had I been there, given the questions I did ask of our religion. Yet, the Rebbe's words were in many ways soothing that indeed I did belong there. Since Sinai, we all did.
While Habad theology and my own are very different, this idea has stuck with me all this time, along with the silence Greenberg's Shoah piece had. Last year while doing a re-edit of the Haggadah my family uses, I combined the pieces together into one piece about the fifth child, replacing the many inserts we had been using at this point. While the child who does not know how to ask is there but silent, a silence of presence, the fifth child is a silence of absence and all the more quiet.
As I wrote this, I got an interesting e-mail from the Chicago Tribune asking for an interview. After arraigning a time for a phone conversation, the reporter asked me some questions about outreach, spirituality, drum circles and the song Shabbosville. When the reporter asked whether I felt "Spiritual" while involved with a drum circle or in other situations, I noticed something I hadn't before. All of my answers to this spiritual question were the same. Spiritual for me is about connection, about divine connection, but even stronger, about connection within a community. The community is the connection to the divine connection. When I drum in a drum circle, or get into a discussion group, there is something special that happens within that group. For me any kind of spiritual is about that connection. As our tradition notes in many ways spirituality is something that is to be done in a group. Whether it is the requirement of a minyan for Kaddish, or the statement in the Perkei Avot that three who speak words of Torah at a table dine at the table of Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu, we are told over and over again community is holy. We can remember the story of the five Sages of Bnei Brak who got into the Seder's spirituality so much through discussion, they lost track of time.
So when we sit down to our Passover Seders, we one again meet in community. My family's Seder has over time turned into community event, with many who would not otherwise at the table for a religious observance attending and helping us tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. The table is community, and community is what really is spiritual. And it is in that light that makes the fifth child so much more tragic. Not only are there the silence of those who died in the Shoah, and those who endanger Jewish religious continuity, but those who do not live in the divine connection of community, even for one or two nights a year. We left Egypt not as individuals, but as a holy community.
As the Seder is community, let us remember to appreciate that at our own Seders and pray and work towards making sure all can feel the spirituality of such a communal meal.
Have wonderful Seders and a very happy Passover.