Pesach meditation: the Four Children by Rabbi Zev-Hayyim Feyer

The statue of Nandor Wagner "Four Children" 1964
The statue of Nandor Wagner "Four Children" 1964
The statue of Nandor Wagner “Four Children” 1964

Why are the four children listed in this particular order? Why is the “wise” child burdened by being placed right next to the “wicked”? Our master and teacher Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev says that the one who does not know how to ask is in fact at the highest level of the four children. Read not, he says, “the one who does not know how to ask” but rather “the one who knows how not to ask.” We may extrapolate from Rebbe Levi Yitzhak’s suggestion and learn that the four children are, in fact, in ascending order of spiritual attainment.

1. The “Wise” Child

First we have the “wise” child. Retranslating the first sentence of the “wise” child’s paragraph, we read “the wise one is what s/he says.” This one is at a high level; this one wants to know all the details of the Law, what one must do, what one must refrain from doing. And we provide this child with everything s/he asks, detailing all the minutiae of the Law. This is the level of the World of Assiyah, the World of Action, the level of doing, the body level.

2. The “Wicked” Child

The rasha, commonly called the “wicked” child, however, is at a higher level. The rasha is what s/he says, “What are all these observances to you?” The tradition understands this question as being directed to the community and hence understands this child as having excluded him/herself from the community. But we can also hear it as a serious response to the “wise” child. “You are so concerned with the details of the Law,” the rasha says to the hakham, “the dos and don’ts. But what is it to you? How does it permeate you? What does it really mean to you?”

This child, although called “wicked,” is actually asking for the meaning of the Law, the meaning of the observances. And we can break down this child’s title, “wicked,” rasha, into רש plus ע. We we may understand as rosh, meaning head, and the name of the letter ayin means eye. The rasha, then, is the one who insists on seeing (the eye) and knowing or understanding (the head). This is a higher level than the mere doing of the “wise” child; this is the World of Yetzirah, the World of Formation, the level of knowing, the mind level.

3. The “Simple” Child

The “simple” child is higher still, for the simple child is what s/he says. The word תם, tam, means simple; its Arabic cognate, tamam, means complete. This child cuts through the details of the doing, breezes past the understanding, the knowing. This child simply asks, “What is it?” This child poses a question, again, not to the community (as the tradition has understood it) but in response to the hakham and to the rasha, the ones who have just spoken. “Get past the doing,” this child says. “Certainly, it is important to do, but that is only the first step. Get past the knowing; that, too, is important, but it is only an intermediate step. Find the passion, the essence of what it is; go to the heart of the matter.” This is a still higher level, for this is the World of B’riyah, the World of Creation, the level of feeling, the heart level.

4. The One Who Does Not Know How To Ask

Finally, rejoining Rebbe Levi Yitzhak, we rise to the one who does not know how to ask, or, as Rebbe Levi Yitzhak puts it, the one who knows how not to ask. This child just looks. S/he looks at the doing child and smiles. S/he looks at the knowing child and smiles. S/he looks at the feeling child and smiles. This child has gone beyond the doing, the knowing, even the feeling. This child just is. This child has no need to ask, for this child truly immerses in the actuality, the reality, of Pesah. This child becomes Pesah. And this is the World of Atzilut, the World of Emanation, the level of being, the soul level, the highest level of all.