The Number Four In the Seder

The Number Four In the Seder
April 15, 2011

In just a few nights from now, we will be sitting about our Seder tables, reciting the four questions, drinking four cups of wine, and speaking about the four children. The number four pervades the Seder. A natural question is why?

The rabbis tell us it is because of the four promises of redemption that occur in the Book of Exodus, chapter six, verses six and seven which read, “I will free (v’hotzeiti), you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver (v’hitzalti) you from their bondage. I will redeem (v’ga’alti) you with an outstretched arm and extraordinary chastisements. And I will take (v’lakachti) you to be My people.”

Scholars tell us that the format of the Seder is based upon the Greco-Roman banquet during which the guest drank four cups of wine during dinner and then a philosophical discussion followed by the afikoman, the dessert. However it started, the number four seems to be important.

In our Seders, the children traditionally recite the four questions and the adults drink four cups of wine (as long, that is, as there is a designated driver). When we get to the four types of children, also known as the four sons, we are stumped. Who should lead the discussion in this session and what really is it about? This section alludes to the four types of people, one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple and one who does not even know how to ask a question. This midrash is an example of how we should approach storytelling, that we should tailor a message appropriate for the type of audience we are addressing. Yet there is another way of dealing with this section.

In this week’s Ten Minutes of Torah, Rabbi Daniel Allen suggests we allegorize this section as the “Four Kinds of Jews.” I found this suggestion so appealing that I offer it to you as a possible discussion topic for your Seders.

The first kind of Jew is the responsible Jew. “On April 1, 1933, the Jewish Review of Berlin, a Zionist newspaper, editorialized concerning what the Jewish response should be to the new Nazi law that all Jews were required to wear a yellow star. “The answer must be clear. It must be that briefest of sentences Moses spoke to the Egyptians- Ivri anochi, I am a Jew. These are the same words journalist Daniel Pearl uttered to the terrorists before they murdered him.” The responsible Jew not only affirms his identity, he revels in it. He works for the benefit of the Jewish people and is involved in the Jewish community. He works to sustain and strengthen Jewish life. He takes responsibility for his heritage and his faith.

“The second kind of Jew is the irresponsible Jew. This Jew thinks that by assimilating to be just a human being will make him more of a person. As a wise man once said, “To the degree that a Jew destroys the natural Jewish foundation in one’s soul, you become less of a person and less of a Jew.” All human beings see the world through a particular cultural identity. What a loss if a Jew adopts another identity without fully exploring and understanding the richness of our own.

“The foolish Jew is the third. Rabbi Chanoch of Alexandria said, “The real exile of Israel in Egypt was that they learned to endure it.” Our sages added, “Not only was it necessary to take the Jews out of Egypt but also to take Egypt out of the Jews.” Our values must not reflect a slavish attachment to the culture in which we live but should reflect the transcendent and eternal values of the Jewish tradition. We should not embrace the selfishness and materialism of Egypt but should hold on to the giving and loving nature of that which is best in our Tradition.

The fourth type of Jew is one who is indifferent to our people and to the ongoing creation of the State of Israel. We remind this Jew, in the words of Dr. Chaim Weitzman, first President of Israel, “A nation does not receive a state on a silver platter.” Nation building is not an easy and clean business. Sustaining a nation in a tough neighborhood like that in which Israel lives is even more difficult. Not every choice is morally clear. What is important is that one engages in the process of supporting our people and the State of Israel. We do not necessarily have to agree with everything Israel does and every policy which it enacts, but we may not loss our connection to the greatest miracle of the Twentieth Century.

So, dear friends, this is an example of something different, a way to change the discussion at your table. Try this or try something else to spice up this year’s Seder. The beauty of the Haggadah is that is has never been put into final form. Add your own interpretations and stories to it, as I did tonight. The most important part is understanding that this is our story, the story of our people, and that we have the right, and obligation, to embellish it as we would to make it more meaningful for those around our tables.

Shabbat shalom and a Pesach sameach v’kasher.

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