The Passover Seder is a ritual that has evolved enormously over the course of thousands of years. Some facets of Pesach are very ancient, dating back to the exodus. All of us know that we are commanded to eat matzah because our ancestors left the Egypt in great haste.
Other aspects of the Seder are more contemporary. Many of us have a Kos Miryam, a cup filled with water in remembrance of the prophet, Miriam. Some of us also are accustomed to placing an orange on our Seder table. As taught by Susannah Heschel, as we eat the orange, we should spit out the seeds to represent our rejection of homophobia.
To my mind, it’s endlessly fascinating to discover how different rabbinic authorities picked and chose among various practices in the attempt to bring order (the meaning of the Hebrew word, “seder”) to Pesach observance.
One of the most beloved rituals during the Pesach Seder is the recitation of the four sons: the good, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. As a child, I remember vying with my brothers to be chosen to be the “wicked” child. After all, there’s more cache in being a bad boy than a good one, especially when you’re surrounded by your family and friends.
But of all the four children, the one who shows goodness by asking to learn more about the laws of Pesach; the one who is wicked because he excludes himself from the community; the one who is just a baby and is too young to ask; I have always been unimpressed by the one who is described as being Tam, a simple child. In Hebrew, the simple-one asks, “Mah Zot – What does all this mean?” In response, the Seder leader states “With a mighty hand God freed the Jewish people from Egypt, from the house of bondage.” (Exodus 13.14)
Until recently, of all the four children, I have been the least intrigued by the question of the simple child. It seems uncomplicated and straightforward. At least with the good child and the wicked child, you can give a more sophisticated answer. With the one who is too young to ask, you respond by cooing a verse from Torah.
But then I read that a second century rabbi had a different word he used to describe the third child. R’ Chiya called this child a Tipeysh. For asking “Mah Zot – What does all this mean?” Rabbi Chiya says he is a Tipeysh, which translated means “stupid.”
Oy!! If we are to encourage our children to ask questions Judaism, calling him or her stupid is the last thing we would want to do! No child will be awakened to a sense of wonder and curiosity when he or she is labeled an idiot.
Thank goodness our sages did not codify R’ Chiya’s description of the third child as Tipeysh but instead used the Hebrew word “Tam.” The word has an expansive meaning beyond “simple.” Indeed, the translation of the word means “pure.”
On reflection, it is the third child, more so than the first, second, or fourth, who asks the most pure and important question of all. For in asking “Mah Zot-What is the meaning of this?” this child’s query goes to the very heart of Pesach.
By asking what is the meaning of Passover, the third child beckons each of us to respond with an answer that speaks to the value, relevance, and significance of this festival. “Mah Zot?” may appear to be a simple question, yet it requires us to dig deeper into ourselves to provide an answer that bridges the ancient practices of our ancestors and endows rituals with renewed relevance. “Mah Zot?” in truth is not a simple question to answer at all, but instead in its purity calls us to fulfill the mandate: “In every generation, each Jew should see him or herself as if he or she went out of Egypt.”
If we are truly able to answer the third child’s question, then we are well on our way to endowing our Pesach Seder with richness and wonder. It is my hope and prayer that you find relevance and meaning in your celebration of the Festival of Freedom. I wish you and your dear ones Chag Pesach Sameach - a beautiful and joyful Passover.