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The four children of Covid

Every seder, we read about the four children. These characters in our Haggadah have come to us from the Palestinian Talmud, and are based on Torah verses. They’ve entered our liturgy as a joyous part of the seder ritual.

It’s a fun annual party game to speculate about which of the four you might be, and even to assign the attributes to other guests at the party.

For what it’s worth, I usually play the wicked child of the Haggadah. I quite like the idea of being the trouble-maker.

But is it really how we want to define people, and their relationship to Judaism? My teacher, Professor Jeremy Schonfield, has pointed out that all the four children are really quite negative stereotypes, and they all get punished for their questions.

The chacham – or wise child – might better be called the know-it-all. She sits at the seder and already knows all the answers. So she comes along and, puffing up her chest, asks: “what are the laws of Passover?” Oh, she thinks she already knows. She’s asked this question every year. She can smugly rattle off to you how well she prepared koshering the house and she has strong opinions on what everyone else should be eating. Yes, you’ve met her.

So how do you respond to her? Tell the wise child the most complicated laws about Pesach, even the one about how you don’t start the second part of the meal until you’ve found the afikomen. That’s at the very end of Mishnah Pesachim, and she probably won’t have got that far. That’s it, put her in her place. Make sure she knows that she doesn’t really know it all. Thank you, chacham, for your very wise remarks, the rest of us would like to get on with the meal.

Then you’ve got the rashaa – the wicked son – who asks “what does all this mean to you?” To you, not to him. He doesn’t care. He’s not interested. Why are you doing all this? Your wicked son will do whatever he likes, but from his aloof standpoint, he can take a shot at you with your primitive rituals. The accusing patriarch responds to this by telling him he should have been left in Egypt. Hope you can take scorn as good as you give it, rashaa.

Next comes along the child who is tam. The Reform Haggadah generously translates this as naïve, probably to avoid the ableist overtones of the more familiar translation that this child is simple. The word could just as easily mean ‘mute’ or ‘modest’, but we’re probably meant to imagine her as clueless. She asks: “what’s this?” Like a lost sheep bewildered by the most basic rituals of the most famous festival, she’s stuck, absently pointing at objects and asking what’s going on.

How do we help her? The seder leader responds by saying “God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched hand…” – and then doesn’t even bother finishing the sentence. There’s a long verse you could quote to the tam but you assume she’s already lost interest and, frankly, you’ve already lost patience. Why bother with someone who’s simple?

You turn straight to the child who doesn’t know how to ask. And you repeat exactly what you just said to the simple child. How much more patronising can you get? You’re not going to even bother trying to include him. You just tell him what he already knows because he just heard you say it to your daughter.

If anything, the Haggadah is a model in how not to engage people. It’s an exercise in what happens when you label children and assume the worst in them. You respond with terrible answers that leave your dinner guests feeling deflated.

In 1950, the great Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg wrote a response to the Four Children. It was the only poem she ever wrote about the Second World War, and it’s a stunning meditation on how the trauma of genocide shaped her contemporaries’ outlooks. In this poem, she completely reimagines who the four children are, picturing each of their postures as a trauma response.

She begins with the child who does not know how to ask, imagining a woman heartbroken by survivors’ guilt. She has witnessed the most horrific brutality and lived to talk about it. Only now she has no words. Stumped, she asserts:

I am not wicked, not smart, not even simple,

And for this reason, I asked no questions

Her survivor cajoles the reader: If you can, then open me up.

Goldberg then helps us understand why someone might become ‘wicked.’ She tells of a man who has been toughened up by circumstances and now cannot bear to empathise. His tears have dried up and his heart has hardened. So he vows to be cruel and cool and estranged. He tells God:

To you, I blunt my teeth.

What about the simple child? Goldberg tells us of someone who has known so much pain that just looking at stars reminds her of her anguish. She looks at the millions of stars and sees the millions dead. The stars remind her of her night terrors:

On all other nights against a dark arrogant sky,

Against a delirious moon and against the milky-way

Great gloomy ghosts of a day gone by

And, just once, she wants to get back her naivety. She wants to be able to stop seeing her pain when she looks up at night. So she implores:

On all other nights, anticipation, silence

On this night – only stars

Why shouldn’t she be permitted her simplicity?

The wise child, in Goldberg’s poem, is the one who says the least. He is the one who died. That is what wisdom meant to a survivor of the Shoah.

Reframed through Leah Goldberg’s eyes, we can understand the four children not by their worst intentions but by the trauma they carry and the way they deal with pain.

This seems to me a much better way of greeting dinner guests. It should be a starting assumption that everyone we meet is carrying baggage. Everyone is hurting. We have to be able to meet people at their most vulnerable and our most sympathetic.

As lockdown eases, I am aware that many people are only just processing what we have been through. I am not by any means comparing what we have experienced to the Holocaust, but we have certainly been through something unprecedented and destabilising. Our old certainties about our religion, our health, and our community have been disrupted. We have known death, heartache, family struggles and isolation.

Now we meet each other. We can choose what responses we adopt. We will meet people who seem wicked, or who seem naïve, or who seem like they know it all, or who seem like they have nothing to say. We may well want to blunt our teeth at them and put them in their place. We may want to be impatient or patronising.

But the better response, the more Jewish response, will be to meet them where they are, and hear them in their hurt. Whatever type of child they seem to be, the important thing to remember is that inside them is a child. Someone inside of them is vulnerable, scared, and looking for assurance. Someone inside of you is the same.

Let us not label each other and dismiss people, but greet each other with compassion and empathy.

Moadim lesimcha.

Shabbat shalom.

This sermon is for Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, Seventh Day Pesach, 3rd April 2021