Rabbi and Rebbetzen, Reverend Robins, Mum and Dad, family and friends, Shabbat Shalom, and thank you all for coming to celebrate this special day with me.
As Pesach is just round the corner, I have been learning about one of the strangest parts of the seder – the Four Sons. They just don’t seem to fit in.
The seder is really made up of two themes. The first theme is the story of how we came out of Egypt. The second is our thanksgiving to God for saving us and for performing such incredible miracles. And then there are the Four Sons… They don’t fit into either category.
I have spent a lot of time learning about these sons, their questions, and the answers we give them. There isn’t enough time now for me to share everything I have learnt with you. However, I want to share a general idea about this piece of the Hagaddah that I think teaches us a very important lesson about Judaism, which is also extremely relevant to me as I become Bat Mitzva.
Seder night is all about the children. We make the whole thing into a hands-on experience. There are things to touch and taste, dramatic stories, plenty of songs, and strange customs that we don’t do at any other time of the year. It is meant to excite the children and encourage audience participation. In truth, it is meant to bring out the child in all of us. In my house, the seder is normally a noisy, fun experience that gets everyone involved. In most houses, the youngest child sings Ma Nishtana, and the response is for the father to then start telling the story of how we came out of Egypt. But what if there are no children at the table? Or what if someone is having seder night alone? If there are no children there, then an adult should say it, but they should make sure to use a questioning tone. The most important thing is the question itself.
What is your natural reaction when someone asks you a question?
Think about it – I just asked you one. What was your immediate response?
When we hear a question, we immediately think of an answer. Questions draw us in. They promote conversation.
Although there are two themes that we speak about at the seder, there is one main style that covers the whole night. The sons fit in because they express the style in which the seder should be conducted. It should be an interactive dialogue. There should be questions and debate, and everyone should be included.
Before I started preparing for my Bat Mitzva, I thought I understood the Four Sons. I thought their questions were pretty straightforward and I never doubted the answers we give them. But when I started reading more closely, it all seemed completely different from what I thought. For example, think about the wise son. His question is about the commandments. He asks about the most complicated way of dividing up the mitzvot and asks what they mean, and our answer to him is that it’s like the Afikoman. It seems ridiculous – the answer we give him seems to have nothing to do with his question. When my teacher and I discussed this in depth, I realised how this was the cleverest and most perfect answer for him. Whilst the words don’t seem to make sense on the surface, the meaning of the answer matches the deeper problem that he is struggling with.
His question shows that he is a bright person. If we wanted to divide the mitzvot into categories, one easy way to do it would be into those commandments that are between man and man, and those that are between man and God. In fact, the Ten Commandments are divided up that way. The other easy way to it would be into do’s and do not’s. But the wise son doesn’t do either of those. He divides them up into 3 groups, based on the meanings of the mitzvot and what they represent. This is someone who has spent lots of years learning the Torah and clearly knows his stuff. So what is his question???
He is saying that, “I know about the mitzvot. I understand them and I am trying really hard to do them, but I am not feeling inspired Jewishly. I am going through the motions but I am not religiously excited. What do the mitzvot mean to you? Do you find meaning in them? Are you inspired? If you are, how do you get to that feeling and how can I get there too?”
Good question. Maybe some of us feel the same as him. Surely such a deep, emotional question deserves an equally moving and inspiring answer. And yet we tell him that it’s like the laws of the Pesach offering – we are not allowed to eat anything after the Afikoman. It’s such a strange response. How does it even come close to answering his question?
First, let’s think about what the Afikoman is. In our seder today, it’s the piece of matza that we hide at the beginning of the seder and then the children hunt for at the end of the meal. Once we find it, we eat it before we say grace after meals. Finding the Afikoman is my favourite bit of the seder. When my dad and his brother have hidden it, all the children pair up to find it. Once it’s been found, we keep going for ages by hiding extra bits of matza round the house and looking for them.
I don’t know about you, but after I have had wine and matza and a delicious, filling meal, the LAST thing I want to eat is another piece of matza. Apart from being full already, I also don’t want to wash away the taste of the lovely food I just ate. The only reason we eat the Afikoman is because God tells us to.
There may be other commandments that we don’t always want to do. Some of them are hard work and may not feel fun, but we do them because we believe that God knows what’s best for us and, in the long run, these mitzvot are for our benefit. As well as that, when we do something that someone asks us to, and we do it, it makes our relationship better and closer because we have fulfilled their wishes and they feel that we have listened to them. When we do the mitzvot, it is giving Hashem that message and it makes our relationship with Him closer.
This is the message we are giving the wise son. We are telling him that we hear his frustration and we understand his feelings. We are giving him some tools to use to help him stay focussed and not to give up hope. Even if it’s feeling a bit dry and uninspiring to keep the commandments, keep in mind why you are doing them and hopefully it will help you keep going until you find your spark again.
There is one other message we are giving him too.
Let me ask you – what happens when you eat or drink something, especially something with a distinct flavour, and then you don’t eat anything afterwards? Imagine you have just had Kiddush… What can you sense in your mouth?
Even for quite a while afterwards, we can still taste the last thing we ate. The flavour lingers, and as long as we can still taste it, we can still think about it. Because we don’t eat anything after the Afikoman, the taste lingers in our mouths. It’s not a ‘quick fix’ that comes and goes in a flash. It stays with us and gives us cause for thought for a long time afterwards.
Our other message for the wise son is that it can be the same thing with the commandments. It’s not like a switch – do a mitzva and feel instant inspiration. It can be like that, but clearly he is not feeling it at the moment. We live in a society where we expect everything in an instant. Hi-tech companies are constantly working to shave seconds off of broadband speed to give faster communications. We use microwaves to speed up cooking time. We email instead of sending letters. Everything has to happen immediately. And sometimes we might think that spirituality should be the same. But it’s not always that easy. It’s true that there can be times when we have a Jewish experience that instantly ignites a spark in us. It’s also true that there can be times when we are keeping many of the mitzvot with care, and yet we don’t feel excited. This is how the wise son feels. We are trying to comfort him and tell him not to feel deflated, and to hold on and keep going as the spark will come back.
The way the other sons’ questions are constructed and answered is just as perfectly matched as that of the wise son. It is also really interesting to note that we even have a response and a message to share with the child who doesn’t ask anything at all. He is a puzzling one to work out, as he could be silent for a couple of reasons. He could be young and unable to speak yet. He may be at his first ever seder and be overwhelmed and not know where to start. Or he could be completely switched off of Judaism and be sitting there with his headphones on and refusing to get involved. And yet we still try to talk to him, open him up and give him something to take away and think about.
For me, this is a really powerful lesson for all of us. Judaism encourages us to get involved and ask questions. No matter who we are or how we feel about our level of religious observance, we are meant to get involved. None of the sons – even the wicked son – is ignored. Each of them is given an answer to match his personality and that gets to the heart of his question. No question is disregarded or left out and each child is given a lesson to help him.
Judaism is not a religion of blind faith. We are not required to accept unbelievable stories and not challenge them. Centuries of tradition teaches us to question the Torah and work out what it means and how it applies to us. There are answers to be found – we may not like all of them, we may not understand them all or they may be uncomfortable to hear, but they are there if we look and ask.
It is generally accepted that the first of the Ten Commandments is about our obligation to believe in God. If you read it, it’s not so much of a commandment, as a statement. “I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the Land of Egypt, from the house of slavery”. In other words, we should believe in God – almighty, ever-present God – because He took us out of Egypt. It’s true – the plagues were pretty impressive and splitting the sea was spectacular. But in comparison, if I were to choose God’s greatest achievement and most mind-blowing event, I would choose the creation of the world. Surely that is a more convincing reason to believe in Him and follow his Torah? After all, if He created the world and everything in it, and the Torah is the handbook telling us how to get the most out of life on earth, then isn’t that is a better reason to believe than the Exodus from Egypt?
Perhaps the reason the first commandment doesn’t talk about creation is because, even though it was the greater miracle, no-one existed yet to witness it. If we were required to believe in Hashem because of creation, it would be an act of blind faith. We would not be able to question it and trace back lines of evidence that could prove it happened as the Torah said.
Around 3 million people came out of Egypt. The whole world knew about it. The Torah recounts the decision of a non-Hebrew, Yitro, who decided to join us because he knew about the miracles in Egypt. Even our enemies decided how to confront us based on their knowledge of Hashem and His relationship with us, even though they didn’t see it. We are commanded to believe in Hashem for a reason that can stand up to scrutiny and withstand time.
The Four Sons is a dialogue between parent and child. I think that the greatest gift parents can give their children is the thirst for knowledge and the desire to question. In encouraging me to learn and prepare for today, and in sending me to a school that teaches to such a high standard, I have been given this gift and I am really grateful for it. My brother and sisters have done this before me, and I am proud that it’s now my turn.
As I become Bat Mitzva today, I am now responsible for my own Jewish choices. The duty to question and find my own sources for Jewish belief and inspiration are now mine. My parents, brother and sisters, wider family, friends and community have given me the best possible start on this journey, and I hope that I will continue to make you all proud.