The Four Children: Fresh insight from a beloved text

Wednesday, April 17, 2019 | 12th Nissan, 5779

The deepest question which underpins all of Hazon’s work is simply this:
We are messing up the world. What should we do about that?

It’s not hard to sketch out some of the main problems the world faces (burning too much carbon; consuming too many resources; destroying wild places; consuming the capital of future generations). It’s not much harder to sketch out, at least in the broadest of terms, what we ought to be doing in response (tax carbon; consume far less; end industrial meat production; preserve wild places).

But between these two brief sentences lies the infinite complexity of 7.5 billion people. We don’t agree on anything. We’re in favor of other people limiting themselves, or being limited, but we ourselves – not so much. If you have ever tried to change anything, however small, in any community – a condo, a place of work, a school, a shul, a Hillel – you will understand that reaching significant change for the whole planet is impossibly hard to imagine.

And yet… change we must. There is that old line: if you don’t change the way you’re headed, pretty soon you’ll get there. The environmental issues, in their scale and complexity, often seem less important than huge but nevertheless more finite issues – gun control, racism, prison reform, economic inequality, discrimination. And yet if we don’t shift our trajectory, the “environmental issues” will dwarf all others in our lifetime. One of the things that will underpin Hazon’s work, going forward, is that we’re going to point this out, a little more consistently. Yes, our work strengthens Jewish life. Yes, we touch people’s lives and thicken community. But we do this by catalyzing the Jewish community – and anyone else who wants to join with us – towards addressing these huge issues of our time. We all have to address these issues – as well as whatever else we are engaged with.

And all this is the backdrop to me thinking freshly about the four children, in the Pesach Haggadah.

I was riding my bike along the West Side bike path in Manhattan, the sunlight dappled on the Hudson, boats bobbing at the boat basin. And I found myself thinking about them through the prism of the world’s environmental challenges:

The wise child, who asks: Seriously, what are we gonna do about this?
The evil child: This is your problem, not mine.
The simple child: Why is this such a problem? Can’t we all just agree, and fix it?
The one who doesn’t know how to ask: Just gettin’ on with my life…

And two things struck me, each quite forcefully.

First: the tradition is willing to make judgments. The rashah, the evil child, is indeed described as such. We live in a very non-judgmental society, and Hazon is of all organizations a fairly non-judgmental organization. (In the immortal words from Fiddler: “You’re right. And you’re right.” / “But rabbi, how can they both be right?” / “ah – you’re also right…”) In response to the rashah the text says that we literally “blunt his teeth” – which is to say, we really challenge him. We don’t let his words go by. And I was riding along, thinking about this. In general, it is not my instinct, or Hazon’s style, to blunt anyone’s teeth. We effect change through vision and positivity and goodness. But it is worth thinking about – and raising the question, at your seder table, and mine – when, actually, (and maybe how) do we challenge people whose views or policies are doing real damage to the world and to its future?

And the second thing that struck me is (of course?) that we are each, in this regard, all four children.
Each of us fears for the future and feels that we must do something to change course.
Each of us wants to say, this is someone else’s problem (the oil companies; the government; the Republicans).
Each of us thinks, from a different place, really, can’t we just change our ways and make things better?
And then each of us wants to run away from it all and get on with our lives.

When you think about it like this, the Haggadah’s response to the rashah – the willingness to blunt their teeth – is no longer an external critique but an internal one. It is not your teeth that need blunting, but mine. I, who need to get on a plane less. Or not eat the “regular” kosher meat at simchas (even though we eat only ethical kosher meat at home, and then exceptionally infrequently).

These, then, my thoughts, as we head not so much towards seder night on Friday night but, even more so, to Saturday night – not merely second seder (outside of Israel), but the first night of counting the omer. This will be my meditation this year. We have 49 days to think about this radical freedom we have, the freedoms we take for granted. (The freedoms, by the way, that our great-grandparents could barely have dreamed of, and that I wish that North Koreans could enjoy today, or Tibetans, or Saudis, or for that matter people incarcerated in US jails for inhumane lengths of time…)

But I digress. Because the meditation this year is: how do I better understand my own freedoms in relation to the environmental crises? What are the daily freedoms that I should self-limit, once we get to Shavuot? How do I start to bring change to the institutions of which I am part? Am I more the wise child or the rashah – or for that matter the simpleton, or the one who forgets to ask these questions in the first place? And most of all, not just how is this night different from all other nights, but rather, how will this year be a different year…?

So – Happy Pesach. Happy Easter. Enjoy springtime. And may we temper our freedoms with the responsibilities that this time thrusts upon us…

Shabbat shalom, chag kasher v’sameach,


PS We have a whole slew of sustainable Pesach resources on our website. We encourage you to download and use our Higher Welfare Egg Haggadah Supplement at your seder, created in partnership with JIFA, the Jewish Initiative for Animals.