"How is this night different from all other nights?"
These familiar words from the Passover Haggadah introduce the traditional Four Questions which the youngest child at the Seder table asks.
When the leader of the Seder replies, he explains that the Torah gives us not one set of answers, but four. Why so? Because there are four different basic types of children, each with its own sort of questioning, and each requiring its own type of answer.
One son is dubbed the wise, another, naïve. A third son has not yet learned how to formulate questions, yet he, too, deserves an explanation of the special events taking place at the Seder. The fourth child is labeled as wayward, for he distances himself from the group. The father does not reject him, but is directed as to how he should best react in order to set his son right again.
From the Haggadah's instructions in each case, we see that just as the children themselves do not resemble each other, so, too, do the responses to the various types differ widely one from the other.
Although the Torah identifies four different types of children, this should not be interpreted to mean that it is content to leave each one in his "natural" state. On the contrary, all four are seated around the Seder table in hopes that next year, the wise child will be even wiser, the naïve child will have gained insight, the shy lad who could not find the words to ask will flood his parents with a torrent of questions, and the wayward child who does not bond to his family, will then feel himself an integral part of the Jewish People.
This is the goal which the Haggadah sets for us. But how do we, as parents, achieve it?
It is precisely this educational process which is the purpose of the Haggadah.
THE WISE SON
Let's follow the Haggadah's lead and start with the wise son. Any parent fortunate enough to be blessed with a healthy, intelligent child should first of all express his thanks to Him who bestowed this present on him. (As we all know, there are no application blanks to fill out on the way to the delivery room.)
A parent is given no choice as to the character or potential IQ of his or her offspring. All we can hope and pray for is to be able to develop to his or her full potential whatever sort of child Heaven gives us.
A parent blessed with a clever child should not just sit back and relax, but see to it that his youngster makes good use of his gifts. Do not push the child off when he asks difficult questions, but rather praise him and see to it that he gets an answer. Help him to grow by suggesting appropriate sources of information where he can locate the information he is seeking.
If such a child does not receive accurate, detailed information in response to his inquiries, but is rejected for "asking too many questions", the parent is likely to discover one day that his child is no longer gifted and anxious to learn. Above all, the child must sense that his parent understands his thirst for new knowledge and approves of his desire to learn more.
The wise son of the Haggadah puts forth a question which is full of detail: "What are the testimonies, the precepts, and the laws which the L-rd our G-d commanded you?" Note the wording of this query. The child distinguishes between testimonies and precepts, precepts and laws. And he is anxious to know all of them.
The Haggadah instructs us: "And you, the parent, tell him the laws of the paschal lamb." Provide a detailed answer to match the child's detailed question.
Review and explain in detail all the matters of Pesach and its regulations, rules, practices, and so forth, from beginning to end … all the way to the laws concerning the Afikomen which concludes the Seder meal. By doing so, you will convey to him that his questions are important to you. The information you provide will quench his thirst for knowledge.
THE WAYWARD SON
And now, to the opposite extreme, the wayward child. Here the Haggadah refers to a child who seems to just enjoy himself. He's always looking for a way to get out of doing the job assigned to him. Nothing interests him. All he wants out of life is a chance to express his feelings and enjoy himself.
With a look of disdain, he regards his parents and instructors and declares: 'In my world, I'm all that matters.' He has no hesitations about expressing his disdain for his parents' long-winded explanations. "That's for your generation, the old timers," he tells them. "I know what's good for me. I'm independent. I can take care of myself just fine, without any help or advice from you."
In the words of the Haggadah, your job as his parent is to "blunt his teeth." Be clever; take the bite out of his words without demeaning him. Help him to come down from his high horse, but do so indirectly. Contrive to let him know that the ivory tower in which he has ensconced himself is imaginary, a castle built on sand. Find a way to impress upon him the need to acquire new knowledge and skills. Without alienating him, it must be made clear that unless he takes advantage of some source of training and learning, he will not get anywhere in life.
The Haggadah tells us, "Were he there, (in Egypt at the time of the Exodus), he would not have been saved."
If a person does not wish to make progress, if he refuses to help himself, no one else can help him, either.
THE NAÏVE CHILD
"What's this? What's that?" Most children go through a stage of constant questioning as they begin to learn about their immediate environment. Some children remain at this stage even when they're nine or ten. It could be that younger brothers and sisters are already more mature, intellectually, than their older sibling. They may have advanced to asking "Why?" rather than "What?" questions.
In contrast, the naïve child appears to remain superficial in his queries. He shows no signs of stopping to reflect on what he has learned, or trying to digest new knowledge and apply it intelligently in new situations. He persists in considering only the surface of matters, and asking: "What's this?"
A parent may feel frustrated by the simple questions of his child who, to his thinking, should be asking far more complex questions. In such a case, it's up to the parent to add depth to his answer and encourage the child to analyze the information provided. Broaden his horizons with interesting questions. "What do you think would happen if....? Can you figure out why …? What does this remind you of?"
The parent's role is to open the door for the child to progress to the next stage, and the next. Slowly but surely, he will leave this stage behind and gain greater insight and wisdom.
We learn this from the Haggadah. Regarding the unusual goings-on at the Seder table, the child asks a simple question: "What's this?"
The parent's answer is more detailed. He does not answer merely "matzah" or "wine" in response to his child, but goes to the root of the matter, and gives a comprehensive explanation: "G-d took us forth from Egypt, from the House of Bondage, with a strong hand."
THE CHILD WHO DOES NOT KNOW HOW TO ASK
The fourth child seems harder to raise than the son who is naïve. He doesn't ask anything at all. Nothing seems to stimulate his brain. It would appear that he doesn't notice anything strange or unusual at the Seder table, or, for that matter, anywhere else, either. Everything is acceptable to him. "No problem" seems to be his response to every situation.
It hurts a parent to watch a child who is so passive. His bond with the child weakens, withers, and if there is no constructive intervention, will eventually die altogether. The father or mother may come to the conclusion that he's wasting his time; there is no one in that small body to talk to. Such a parent is not far from giving up on his child altogether.
The Haggadah teaches us how to deal with such a situation. "You open the door for him." Teach him to look, to examine, and to compare. Show him what is usual, and what is unusual. Teach him to formulate a question, and yet another. Demonstrate how one looks for information, on his level, and gets it. Try it, and try it again. Your child will blossom, flower, and form a strong bond with you.
May you find deep satisfaction in them all.