Finding balance in the Haggadah

How about Passover and those crazy characters in the Haggadah, huh? The four sons-or however they are presented in your favorite Haggadah. Frankly, I've never liked this parable, because so much doesn't make sense to me. Let us review:

The wise questioner, what does s/he say?  This detail-obsessive one asks what exactly are these laws and commandments which "our God gave to you?"  And to this, we answer that we were slaves in Egypt and tell the entire story, all the way up to not finishing the Seder with dessert. This may answer the what, but certainly not the why. 

The wicked questioner asks, "What does all this mean to you?"  As the traditional explanation goes, by saying "you," the questioner obviously excludes him/herself, which is the wicked part. After all, separating yourself from the community to such an extent gets you kicked out of the liberation. Except, it's not so obvious to me, since the wise questioner used the exact same language-"you"-and didn't get slammed for it. So, what's so wicked?

The simple questioner says, "What is this?" and the answer is simply, "God took us out of slavery in Egypt. Fair enough, but the Hebrew word that is translated as "simple," is anything but. I'll get to that in a minute.

As for the last questioner, the one who doesn't even know how to ask a question, you're supposed to start at the beginning, as Torah says, "And you shall relate to your [son] on that day, this is done because of what God did for me, when I went out from Egypt."  I suppose if you don't know what the question is, throw a lot of information out and hope that an answer appears somewhere from within the deluge.

But to return to questioner #3, the word "tam," though translated as "simple," is a fascinating word. "Tam" is used to describe Jacob, sitting by the tents (Gen: 25:27). Odd, since Jacob is a very complicated fellow, and quite a deceptive one, too. At the other end of the Torah, in Deuteronomy, we read, "You should be wholehearted ( tamim t'hiyeh ) with your God…." (Deut 18:13). Same word, (second one is plural) meaning simple and wholehearted? So, what to make of Questioner #3, described as "tam"? And why does it appear in the telling of the Passover story?

Two texts come to mind. The great scholar Nechama Liebowitz writes in her book on Deuteronomy, "The opposite of 'wholehearted/tamim' is a disharmony between the inner and outer man, between words and deeds.'"  The Chassidic rabbi, Yehudah Aryeh Lieb Alter (a.k.a. Sfat Emet, late 18 th century) writes about the balance between experiencing God out in the world and inside us. Referring to the tradition of using a candle and feather to find the last bits of chametz (leavening) in your house before Passover begins, he said the candle was "best for searching out chametz ."  For the Sfat Emet, the candle of God is a person's soul, and we are using it not only to find the puffed-up-ness in our homes, but also in our own selves, liberating ourselves from our personal narrow places ( mitzrayim is the word for Egypt, but comes from the word for "narrow").

When we are puffed up like chametz , we are distracted and can't find a place of harmony between our inner and outer selves. Questioner #3 is as simple, not as in plain or deficient, but rather in the sense of being in balance-simple, straightforward, and truly wholehearted, because the inside and outside match. It is a wholehearted question that is asked: What is this?  And the wholehearted answer is the reason for the whole Passover ritual: God took us out of the slavery in Egypt and brought us to freedom. 

Looked at through the lens of inside/outside, perhaps the other three questioners are living too much in one or the other, and in disharmony. It is only the "tam" questioner who is in balance, in true, wholehearted harmony, and it is this question that contains all the others. n

Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, at www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com .



AdvertisementNews-Ad_Slot1_Banner-Ad-1
AdvertisementNews-Ad_Slot1_Banner-Ad-3
Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.