One of the most expounded upon parts of the Haggadah at Pesach is the portion of the Four Sons. There are reams of Divrei Torah about what they represent, as individuals and as a group. The Rasha (the “wicked” son), in particular, tends to get a lot of attention, both positive and negative, as troubled students tend to get. However, in the same classrooms where the troublemakers get all the attention, there is also a second group of students who demand time and preparation from the teacher. They are every teacher’s favorite and the worst students to teach: the smart kids.
On the one hand, the smart students are often eager to learn, and do not require as much effort on the part of the teacher to “entertain” them into liking the material. They also tend to have many questions that the teachers will enjoy hearing and researching in order to come up with suitable answers. Yet at the same time, if this group of students if left unattended to, on the assumption that they are good kids and can work on their own, these smart kids may degenerate into “smart alecks,” who have heard the answers to everything already, and are always bored. They claim to have never learned anything new, and they do not need to, as they’ve “heard it all before.”
In the middle of this continuum steps the chacham (the “wise” son) from the Haggadah, whose question appears in his week’s parsha. On the one hand, his question is respectful; he says “The L-rd, our G-d,” unlike the Rasha who does not mention Shem HaShem at all. He (the Rasha) also is aware of the distinctions between the different types of mitzvot. Yet at the same time, he is also becoming a bit of a smart-mouth; he says that “Hashem, our G-d, commanded you,” as in you, not me. The Netziv adds that his question is really twofold: first, why does the Torah repeat so many of the mitzvot, complete with additional warnings? After all, we understood them the first time, both the warnings and the mitzvot. Second, why is there so much ink spilled about them in Talmudic tradition? Why not just stick with the Written Torah, which could have been much shorter, and the psak halacha, thereby reducing the Talmud by four-fifths?
The Netziv explains that the following passukim are meant to answer the Chacham. The reason for all the additional warnings and repetitions are in order that we should gain additional merits every time we learn and perform them. These words are not telling us new information; they are elaborating on them for our benefit. Also, every time a mitzvah is performed, one can always find new meanings and additional reasons to avoid sinning, even if one’s personal reason at one stage of life is replaced by a different one.
A second answer comes from the Gemara Beitza 25B. Rabbi Meir says that the reason the Jewish People were given the Torah She’Ba’alPeh is because they are brazen and studying the Oral Torah will restrain them by giving them a suitable outlet. The history in these passukim tell the Chacham that although we may have started off as slaves who could not be so brazen, that brazenness was always there. Now that B’nei Yisrael was in its homeland, that brazenness could come out in full-force. Therefore, even if the Halacha may not be decided practically by every line of argument and dispute in the Talmud, every line still serves a role as restraining that otherwise untamed defiance.
These two answers serve as both rebuke and inspiration to the Chacham. He is told that he should not be frustrated at the amount of repetitions, and that they are to help him grow, spiritually and emotionally. Different reasons and fears will come into and out of his life at different times, and a reason that may have satisfied him at age ten will not satisfy him at 20, so by learning a new reason, it may help him in time. Yet at the same time, the charge to the Chacham to go and study is also telling him to cut back on his attitude. By learning Torah She’Ba’alPeh, it will sap his ability to make mouthy comments as he fights to reach Torah L’Amito (the truth in the Torah). The Chacham’s adjustment to this approach of learning, which will never leave him feeling that he’s “already learned that answer,” will bring him to a level that he will be able to “perform this Mitzvah before Hashem as He has commanded us,” in every aspect of the phrase.
Adina C. Brizel is from Kew Gardens Hills, New York. She recently completed a MS degree from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. She can be contacted at [email protected]