Some people learn best from stories; some prefer the rule book: “I can’t keep a list of rules in my head. Tell me the story and I’ll figure out what to do.” Or, “spare me the story and just tell me what to do.” Ancient sources related to Passover offer evidence of both ways of learning.
The Passover Haggadah speaks on behalf of the story, offering a scene in which five legendary sages elaborate the story of the exodus all through the night. Before the curtain rises on their gathering, the Haggadah sings this overture:
And even if we were all wise, all discerning, all elders, all deeply knowing the Torah it would still be our obligation to tell of the exodus from Egypt—to do so is worthy of praise.
Next, the famous scene in which the story of the exodus is the carrier of meaning:
A tale of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon who were reclining in B’nei B’rak where they were telling of the exodus from Egypt all night long until their students came and said to them: Masters! Time has come for the morning Shema!
An equally ancient text, parallel to the Haggadah, prizes rules, not story:
A tale of Rabban Gamliel and the elders who were reclining in the home of Baytus ben Zonin in Lod where they concerned themselves with the laws of Passover all night until the rooster crowed. Then their host removed the tables from before them, roused them and they went to the study house. (Tosefta Pesahim 10:12)
This conversation of ancient sources about story and rules is joined by another. Four times the Torah enjoins parents to explain Passover to their children. In three Torah settings, explanations are prompted by, when your child asks you… One time the explanation is unsolicited. From here, ancient sages imagine three children at the Seder who ask questions and one child who does not ask: The Torah speaks of four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple and one who is not able to ask.
The sages imagine the disposition of each child, projecting much of themselves onto meager biblical clues. What is “wise” about the wise child’s question? What is “simple” about the question of the simple child? And how should one answer each one of them? These two children as they appear in the Haggadah and in another ancient source offer another perspective on story and rule as carriers of meaning.
The Haggadah portrays the “wise” exchange as a “rule” question that receives a “rule” response:
What does the wise child say? What is the meaning of the decrees, the statutes and ordinances which the Lord your God has commanded you? (Deuteronomy 6:20) You should tell him some of the laws of Passover including that one should not go to any “afikoman/dessert” gatherings after the Passover ritual is concluded.
The Haggadah’s simple child prompts a brief story of redemption: What does the simple child say? What does this mean? You shall say to him: It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt… (Exodus 13: 14)
The Jerusalem Talmud presents a Seder portrait of the same four children who ask the same questions. But in that version, the wise and simple answers are reversed. The wise child receives the story and the simple child is (simply) told the rules of how to act.
In short, some great sages were absorbed completely by the story; others, by the rule book. The Haggadah prizes story. Yet, it answers the wise child by quoting the rules and the simple child by telling the story. Another portrayal of the four children presents a wise child whose inquiry is met with the story and a simple child who is supplied with the rules of behavior.
Questions are neither wise nor simple on their own. They rely upon the listening ears of others for shaping, for redeeming. When attending to questions, are you a redeemer?
At the Seder we recognize that this night is different from all other nights: Both story and rule can carry meaning. Which carries meaning more fully for you? Are you able to provide either the story or the rule needed by the other?
Sometimes the things we want to answer are not really what the questioner wants to hear. Like the child who ask where he came from and when his parents begins talking about the birds and the bees, the child indicates he really wanted to know what place they had come from. Some mourners ask questions that seem to require a theological response, but are simply looking for comfort and reassurance.
Building upon the previous comment, I would suggest that while there may indeed be more than one right answer to a question, the point is that the questions should be addressed with seriousness and respect, regardless of whether the questioner him or herself is wise, simple, or somewhere in between.
Thank you for providing some good “food for thought” for many of us, as we count down to our Passover Seders.
Understanding the question can make all the difference in formulating a good answer – to the right question – in the moment. The haggadah’s modeled parent-child exchanges help the parent remember to match the answer not only to the question but also to the child. A lot of us carry baggage – preconceptions, expectations, assumptions about each other’s character or motivations – that interferes with that process. Maybe that’s why Malachi sees listening across the generations as a sign of the dawn of redemption – Elijah “will turn the hearts of parents to children, of children to their parents…” and the message of the rabbis in putting that haftorah a couple of days before seder. Listen, really listen, and the message of comfort, freedom, connection and redemption will arise of themselves.