The wise son’s question and answer


The narrative of the Four Sons is one of the highlights of the Maggid (Telling) section of the Haggadah. Contemporary versions of this work formulate the first two questions in this manner:

“What does the wise [son] say? ‘What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the L-rd our G-d commanded you (etchem)?’ … What does the wicked [son] say? ‘What is this worship to you (lachem)?’ To you and not to him. And since he excluded himself from the collective, he denied a principle [of the Jewish faith].”

An endless sea of ink has been spilt in an attempt to elucidate the differences between the wise son’s use of “etchem” and the wicked son’s use of “lachem,” since both terms may readily be translated as “you.” While the examination of the distinctions that obtain between these two questions is surely a significant endeavor, it takes focus away from the meaning of the wise son’s inquiry — which deserves to be studied in its own right.

One of the major thinkers to focus upon the singular import of the wise son’s question was the great Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev zatzal, known as both “the Berdichever” after his location, and “the Kedushat Levi” after the name of his most famous work. He maintains that in order to fully comprehend the wise son’s question, we must first understand the defining characteristics of matzah and chametz. To achieve this goal, he conceptually contrasts the nature of these substances:

“Behold, the word ‘matzah’ and its essence teaches us about the creation of the world, that it was created completely new, out of absolute nothingness, and brought forth from total emptiness. … The intrinsic nature of chametz is that of something that is old, in stark contrast to matzah, which, by definition, represents that which is new. (Kedushat Levi, Sefer Vayikra, Drasha on Pesach)

The Berdichever deepens his analysis of the inner meaning of matzah by emphasizing Hashem’s roles as Creator of the Universe and Redeemer of our nation from Egyptian bondage: “Our Creator is teaching us through the mitzvah of matzah that there is a Creator of the Universe, and that each day, and each moment, He creates the world anew as is His desire. This is just like what He did in the Exodus from Egypt when He acted in an amazing manner that defied the laws of nature, since each one of the Ten Plagues violated the laws of nature.”

Next, the Berdichever teaches us that the recognition of Hashem as the Creator and Redeemer leads us to profoundly spiritual heights: “When we know all of this with crystal clarity, then we will never move our hands and legs to do anything other than that which leads to the honor of His Name may He be blessed and exalted. Moreover, we will then be drawn to hold Him in awe and achieve the highest level of awe in His regard, ‘on account that He is the Master and the Ruler’.” (Zohar, Volume I, 11:2)

Based on this trenchant analysis, the Berdichever explicates the deepest depths of the wise son’s question: “This, then is the [meaning inherent in] the wise son’s question, ‘What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments that the L-rd our G-d commanded you?’ Is it not enough [the wise son might add] that we have the mitzvah of matzah? Behold, from it alone we learn to fear and love the honored, great and awesome Name of Hashem!

Therefore, of what need are the testimonies, statutes and judgments [when our ultimate spiritual goals have already been achieved through the mitzvah of matzah]?”

We are now in a better position to understand the Haggadah’s answer to the wise son: “Accordingly, you will say to him, as per the laws of the Pesach offering, ‘We may not eat an afikoman [a dessert or other foods eaten after the meal] after [we are finished eating] the Pesach offering’.” At first glance, this seems to have little to do with the wise son’s question. Based upon the Berdichever’s analysis of the mitzvah of matzah, however, we can recognize that it is the perfect response.

According to the Berdichever, when the wise son asserts, “from it [the mitzvah of matzah] alone we learn to fear and love the honored, great and awesome Name of Hashem,” we must inform him that while this is surely necessary, it is insufficient. Judaism is far more than the pursuit of such ideals, since their inner meaning must be concretized in practical actions in order to bring kedushah into the world. How is this achieved? Precisely through the performance of “the testimonies, statutes and judgments” that the L-rd our G-d commanded us — including, the law of not eating an afikoman after we have eaten the korban Pesach. In sum, the wise son needs to know that as crucial as the attainment of spiritual heights may be, they must be built on the heartfelt performance of action-based mitzvot

This Pesach, may we be zocheh to redouble our efforts to strengthen our relationship with Hashem through the performance of His mitzvot. Then may we be deserving to be true sons and daughters of Hashem; as the Torah states in Sefer Devarim: “You are children of the L-rd, your G-d…” V’chane yihi ratzon.