The most important son at the Seder is not the wise one.
He’s not the one for whom the Haggadah (Ex. 13:8, “v’higgad’ta levin’cha”, “you shall narrate to your son”) explains the laws of the festival. The wise son is sure to want to delve into the sources for himself.
Nor is it the wicked, the “rasha”, even though his attitude is shocking.
It is not the third son, the “tam”, because if we coax him and treat him gently, he will respond.
The most important son is the fourth, the “she’eino yodei’a lish’ol”, he who “knows not to ask”. It is for him that the Haggadah is designed.
When this son fails to ask, the parent is told, “At petach lo” – “you must take the initiative and tell him the story yourself”.
Why doesn’t he ask? If he is too young, time will fix that problem. If he is ignorant of Judaism and finds it all strange, some study will remove the mystery. If he is too passive, a motivational approach will arouse him and awaken his interest.
Or is it that he doesn’t want to ask?
The reason might be smugness. Maybe he sees no need to inquire or find out more.
Should we treat him like a wicked son? Should we be tough on him, saying harshly that people like him would have prevented the Exodus? If the Israelites had not protested against the slavery and yearned for salvation, if they had not been desperate to break free, the enslavement would have gone on longer.
Faced with that kind of son, the parent is told, “At petach lo” – “take the initiative, get the message across that it’s worth getting information!”
He need not endorse all that people do, say, or are. He needn’t meekly follow the herd. If he wants to rebel, so be it, though we’d prefer him to be a rebel within the community.
Maybe he is afraid that someone will tell him not to ask. Being told, “Freg nit!” “Don’t ask!” is a guaranteed put-off, leaving a person muzzled, blocked, unable to query or to challenge the powers that be.
We need to persuade him that asking questions is not only permitted but an accepted Jewish habit.
How sad it is when somebody knows from bitter experience that it’s better not to ask.
Once I urged a rabbinic conference to discuss the moral problems of the time. For an example, I mentioned drug-taking. My colleague said, “It’s simple. Just say two things, ‘Freg nit’, don’t ask! ‘M’torf nit’, don’t do it!”
I didn’t reply. The response went against all I believed about rabbis, about the Talmudic process of asking, arguing and and animated dialogue.
The sages debated what it meant when people asked questions. The most important answer is that asking questions is an indication of interest.
If and when the “fourth child” asks questions, the answer can’t be “Freg nit” or even “M’torf nit!” If questions need asking, let them be asked.
Isidor Isaac Rabi, a Nobel laureate, was head of the physics department at Columbia. Asked what got him involved in science, he said, “I couldn’t help it!” As a child returning home every day from public school, his mother would ask him, “Did you ask any good questions today?” Because of his mother, Rabi dedicated his life to questions.
The fourth son at Seder has to ask questions, or else he will never find the truth.
The Haggadah never explicitly answers the Mah Nishtanah. Four good questions, but where are the four good answers? You need to get to the end of the Haggadah. And then you would need to think about it some more.
The simplest child can ask questions that even the wise cannot answer. The full answers might be beyond us.
But that doesn’t make the list of questions wrong or redundant. It tells us not to expect everything to become clear at once.
Mendele Mocher Sefarim says, “Not all questions may be asked, nor is there an answer for every question”. I disagree. Every question may and ought to be asked.
The rabbis say that before the Messiah comes, Elijah will come on earth to answer all the unanswered questions.
In the meantime we have to wait. But we should certainly keep asking.
Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and its leading rabbinic spokesman.