The Four Sons -
K'neged Arba'ah Banim

Everyone is familiar with the Midrash of "The Four Sons" in the Hagaddah, yet because we are less familiar with the parshiot in chumash quoted by that Midrash, its deeper message is often overlooked. The following shiur is a classic example of the necessity of learning "pshat" to appreciate "drash." [The Midrash of the four sons quoted in the Hagadda is actually a Mechilta and a Yerushalmi.]

The Midrash begins:

"Keneged arba'ah banim dibberah Torah":
1) Echad chacham - the wise son;
2) V'echad rasha - the wicked son;
3) V'echad tam - the simple son;
4) V'echad she'eino yodea lish'ol - the son who doesn't know how to ask.
The Midrash continues by quoting a question for each son from the four instances in the Torah when 'the father' answers his son. It is commonly assumed when reading this Midrash that these four questions quoted from chumash all pertain to pesach. Considering that all four questions deal with the same topic, one question and answer should suffice. The Torah, however, provides four different versions of 'questions and answers' concerning pesach. Presumably, the Midrash explains that these four versions in chumash are necessary to answer the questions of four different personalities of sons. Thus, the Torah supplies us with four 'prepared' answers to give our children. A father, when confronted with a question regarding pesach, need merely to open the chumash and choose the appropriate answer for his particular son.

To our surprise, when we compare the answers given by the Haggada to these four questions, to the answers provided in Chumash, we find many discrepancies! If we examine this Midrash more carefully and look up the psukim that it quotes, it becomes obvious that our original assumption is totally incorrect.

Let's begin by comparing, in Board #1, the answers of the Haggada to the answers in Chumash. (Click on the references to see the text.)

Why can't the Midrash quote Chumash correctly?

The reason is simple. If we examine these four questions in Chumash, and study their context, we do find four questions, but each question relates to a different topic, not to a different son!

As Board #2 shows, there are four instances in Chumash where the father answers his son, and all four do relate in one form or another to Yetziat Mitzraim; however each instance relates to a unique topic. [I recommend that you look up each of the psukim and discern the context of each question within its related parsha; again, click on the references to see the text.]

Each question is legitimate, for each question deals with a separate topic. According to 'pshat' there is no necessity to relate these four questions to four different types of sons.

Could it be that the Midrash is unaware that each question relates to a different topic?

As is often the case, the Midrash is not coming to teach us "pshat" in Chumash; rather it is 'using' psukim in Chumash to convey a thought, an educational message. [The Midrash is fully aware of the "pshat" and expects that the reader is intelligent enough to figure out "pshat" on one's own.]

In our specific case, the Midrash of the 'Four Sons' is interested in giving over an insight relating to education, a thought that has added significance on 'Leil HaSeder.' The message of the Midrash is valuable not only to a parent, but to any educator as well.

When the parent hears the question of a child, when the teacher hears the question of a student, he must listen carefully not only to the question, but also to the person behind the question. To answer a question properly, the father must not only understand the question, but must also be aware of the motivation behind it. The answer must be not only accurate, but also appropriate. It must relate to his son's character and take into account his spiritual needs.

In a clever style, the Midrash 'borrows' the four questions mentioned in Chumash when a father answers his son, in order to teach this message. The Midrash offers four examples of how to 'read between the lines' of a question in order to discern the character of the son who is asking.

When confronted with a question, the father is not expected to simply use Chumash as a resource book to look up the correct answer. Rather, he must listen carefully to the voice behind the question, evaluate and answer appropriately. When necessary he can even innovate, as the Midrash does, and substitute his own answer.

This message conveyed by the Midrash of the 'Four Sons' in the Haggadah is the responsibility of every parent and the challenge of every teacher. Understanding it correctly enables us to pass down our tradition from father to son, our heritage from generation to generation; this is the essence of "Leil HaSeder."

Virtual ClassRoom enhancements by Reuven Weiser.

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