Teaser: The Passover Haggadah describes four different kinds of children. Two of them ask questions which seem, on the surface, to be similar. Nonetheless, the Haggadah labels one "the wise son" and the other "the wayward son."
What is the difference between the two? Why is one considered wise, and the other "wayward?"
"Arnold's Plate Glass" announced the sign over the wide storefront on Main Street. Stepping inside the premises that fine spring day, one would discover a beehive of activity. Workmen were sawing and hammering away at new showcases, and a young assistant was tearing up the PVC floor tiles. Another team of men were emptying out the show window and preparing to install three new display cases with colored spotlights and accessories.
All in all, Arnold's Plate Glass was getting a thorough overhaul and face-lifting. Flitting about from one corner to the next, Arnold Happert supervised it all, like the queen bee inspecting her hive. He was obviously pleased with the prospect of the renovations, as evidence by the wide smile on his face. The builder, Stanford, also seemed to be in a good mood as he consulted the plans and compared the work to the notes and diagrams he kept at his side. Here and there, a curious passer-by paused to take in the sights and offer a comment or two.
Everyone seemed happy and busy; everyone, that is, except for Peter Grumstone, the owner of the shop right across the street. Peter also sold plate glass, but his shop was smaller and run down when compared with Arnold's. Peter had long been jealous of Happert's success; now that his competitor was renovating, the contrast between the two establishments would be even more striking. As he stood there and watched the comings and goings across the street, Peter was consumed with envy.
Three days later, the workmen put the finishing touches on the new accessories at Arnold's, packed their tools, and left. Even Peter had to admit that they had done a fine job. The store looked more impressive than ever. That same afternoon delivery trucks drew up and unloaded a new range of glass furnishings. One of the staff arranged several items in the show window, and draped it with colorful streamers. Large signs invited customers to come in and see the new line of accessories and glass items on display.
The next day, Arnold's hummed with activity. People came and went, many with large bags or boxes tastefully wrapped as gifts. Mr. Holmes, whose mansion was the envy of the town, stopped in to examine the new line of merchandise, and placed a particularly large order. As he left the shop, the owner shook hands with him and assured that everything would be delivered to the Holmes residence within the next twenty-four hours.
"I like your merchandise, and I like your service, Happert," Holmes announced with a smile. "It has been a pleasure to do business with you. If everything I've taken today proves to be satisfactory, you'll be seeing more of me."
"It will be our pleasure to be at your service, Mr. Holmes," replied Arnold with a bow. "I cannot say that I anticipate any difficulty with the merchandise you have chosen today, but should there be any problem, don't hesitate to let us know. We're here to serve you."
"I shall certainly do that, Happert," nodded Holmes. "A good day to you."
A salesman opened the door as Mr. Holmes stepped out of the shop and went down the steps. He had not gone more than three paces on the pavement in front of the store, when he tripped on a crooked paving stone and fell to the side. His cane smashed right into the new show window, shattered it, and sent slivers of glass flying in all directions. The delicate vases and accessories on display in the window toppled down and also broke into splinters of glass. The sound of the splintering glass brought the staff of Arnold's on the run. Two young men helped the startled Mr. Holmes to his feet. Someone else brought out a chair for him and offered a glass of cold water.
"Are you quite all right, Mr. Holmes?" asked Arnold solicitously. "Is there anything we can do for you?"
"There's nothing amiss with me," the older man assured Arnold, "but I'm afraid I cannot say the same of your new window. And just look at all the merchandise that was smashed when it fell. Dear me, I'm afraid I've caused you quite a loss."
"Nothing to be concerned about, I assure you," Arnold calmed his customer. "The municipality had ought to see to these paving stones. There's no need to concern yourself about the window; we'll have it replaced in no time.
"But are you quite sure that you yourself are all right?"
Arnold remained with Mr. Holmes and reassured him that he need not be concerned with the damage his fall had caused. A customer like the Holmes family was worth keeping, even at the price of a new window. The owner of Arnold's knew it was fully worth his while to forgo the payment of damages; he stood to earn fine profits if Holmes continued to be his customer. He sent one of his salesmen to accompany the older man to his home and make certain that he arrived safe and sound.
Across the street, Peter observed the entire incident with no little satisfaction. Such is the ugly power of human jealousy; Peter was delighted with every additional item that fell and broke. He watched with interest as Arnold reassured Mr. Holmes that he need not worry about covering the costs of the damage he had caused, and a black plot began to form in his mind.
The next day, Peter went into action. He went to a nearby shop and bought a new broom, which he had the salesman wrap up for him. Then he headed back towards his shop, but on the opposite side of the street. His route took him right past Arnold's Glass Shop. One window was boarded over, as it had not yet been repaired. As Peter past by the other side, he pretended to trip and fall over, broom in hand. Having taken careful aim, he managed to send the broom handle right through the window which remained intact.
Once again, the staff came running to see what had caused the sound of splintering glass. Their reaction was quite different from the previous day, however.
"What's going on here, Grumstone?" shouted the first clerk to reach the scene.
Arnold himself came up right behind him. "Oh, so it's you, Grumstone," he shouted in dismay. At once he grabbed the culprit by the arm, and pulled him to his feet.
"It was too much for you to take, was it? Couldn't bear to see your competitor outdo you? Now stop moaning, and come along with us. We're summoning the police, and you'll have some explaining to do when they get here."
Two salesmen held Grumstone under guard in the office until the police arrived. Arnold lodged a complaint, and order a professional assessment of the damages.
When Grumstone's case came before the judge, he complained bitterly of Happert's discrimination against him. "When Holmes broke your window, you fell all over him to reassure him that he needn't pay you a penny in damages. Why don't you treat me the same way? Is Holmes' blood any redder than mine?"
“Rubbish!” countered Arnold. “How can you compare yourself with Mr. Holmes, who placed an immense order with our store? He broke the window accidentally, because of a fault in the sidewalk. His purchase brought us a large profit, which will cover our loss several times over, and will hopefully continue to buy from us on the same scale in the future.
"It is only fitting that we overlook the damages caused by his fall.
“But you? What have you ever purchased from our store? Nothing. Furthermore, you have no intention of ever becoming our customer in the future. You do not wish us well, but begrudge us every customer who comes through our doors. I have no reason to suspect Holmes of deliberately causing us damages; his fall was certainly an innocent accident. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about you. I have every reason to suspect that you planned your 'fall' on purpose, just to have the satisfaction of causing us a further loss.
"Why, then, should we not prosecute you to the full extent of the law?
Although there may seem to be some similarity between the questions of the wise son and his wayward counterpart, there is a fundamental distinction between the two when it comes to their approach to Torah and its commandments.
The wise son is the child who asks: “What are the testimonies, statutes, and laws that G-d has commanded you?”
In this case, we assume that the child used the phrase “commanded you” rather than “commanded us” only out of politeness, or as a manner of speaking, and not because he felt that he was not included in G-d's commandments. On the contrary, he shows an interest in learning more about them and observing them.
Perhaps the wise son chose to word his question in a less than optimal manner, when he used the phrase “to you”, but this was an innocent oversight.
Not so, the wayward child, who demands: “What meaning does all this service have for you?” It is as though he wishes to argue: “What good is all this burdensome service to you?”
Like the wise son, he, too, uses the phrase “to you.” In contrast to the wise child, however, this son does not consider himself a part of the group. He is not seeking more information as to how he can best participate in ceremonies of Pesach, but rather observing from the sidelines, as an outsider, one who has rejected Pesach and all it stands for.
He has discarded his heritage and cast off his bonds with the Jewish People. This is no accidental oversight, but a deliberate rejection. Therefore we respond in kind: “Had you been there, you would not have been saved.”
While the phraseology of the two may be similar, the difference between their attitudes is immense. The wise son is taking a step in the right direction; he seeks to learn more and to bond himself to his eternal heritage. Therefore, we answer his questions fully, and welcome him to become another link in the chain of generations who gather this night to celebrate the momentous events of our journey to freedom.