Four conversed about the pine tree. One defined it according to genus, species and variety. One held forth concerning its shortcomings in the lumber industry. One quoted verses about pine trees in numerous languages. One struck root, stretched out branches and rustled.
In his prose poem called Sicha (Conversation), Dan Pagis gathers four characters, beginning with one who scientifically classifies and ending with one who does not speak. His scene suggests a similar ancient Passover gathering described in the Haggadah:
The Torah speaks about four children—one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know how to ask.
The Torah does not explicitly tell a story about four children. Rather, three times the Torah anticipates that children will ask questions about Passover; a fourth child is instructed, although no question is actually asked.
Ancient sages were sensitive to this unique parent-child instruction in the Torah that foresees a gap developing between Passover ritual and reason. Based upon the biblical give and take, they constructed a character for each child and then assembled those four at the Passover Seder.
The Haggadah project of assembling the Torah’s four children had its own limitations. The biblical exchanges would only allow so much nuance and flexibility for the Haggadah’s script. Over the course of time, types tended towards stereotypes.
The wise child’s inquiry into laws and rules garnered praise. The wicked child’s question about the ritual’s meaning to you earned him a harsh answer in kind that excluded him from the community that the Haggadah insists he has disowned. The third child’s simple question, What is this? elicited a simple, condensed exodus narrative. He was readily identified as naïve and innocent, lacking a capacity for more than a simple, straightforward answer. The child without words is easily seen as a very young child.
The Jerusalem Talmud, at least as old as the Haggadah, already resisted such stereotypes by reversing the answers given to the wise and to the simple child. In so doing, this ancient version of the story implicitly asked: Is there such a thing as a wise or a simple question? Perhaps a question is shaped, strengthened, even redeemed by the response.
Pagis’ poem renews the challenge to re-imagine the four. Each participant in the poem offers a commentary on his Haggadah counterpart.
The first participant occupies the wise child’s place of privilege. His technical knowledge is his wisdom. The one with the sharp and critical eye tests assumptions about what it means to be “wicked.” Pagis’ third character lives in a world of language and verse—a “simple” world that is neither naïve nor unsophisticated.
The final personality is profoundly “rooted” in the subject of the pine tree. His being, his “pining,” is his stand; presence, not presentation is his eloquence.
The poem’s title, Sicha, creates a certain tension with the poem, itself. Does Conversation capture the action of the poem? After all, the poem’s characters do not speak to one another. Just, so, the four children of the Haggadah do not speak to one another. Perhaps the title, Conversation, carries the hope for what might follow once all participants are honored for their presence and for their potential.