The Four Sons: A Model For Education

Passover is the eight-day Jewish holiday of freedom, which commemorates the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. The Passover seder recounts this story at a festive meal. The seminal even in the Jewish calendar, the seder is the highlight of Passover, held on the first (and second) night of the holiday. During the seder, participants read from the Haggadah, a compilation of stories, special blessings and songs.

While most people are familiar with the Haggadah’s Four Questions (Mah Nishtanah), a lesser known “four” in the Haggadah is the four sons. The Haggadah introduces the four sons as follows:

Blessed is the One who has given the Torah to His people Israel, Blessed is He. Concerning four sons does the Torah speak: a wise one, a wicked one, a simple one and one who does not know to ask.

Each son asks a question regarding the meaning of the Passover seder. But how each son asks is unique to his individual personality and intellect – as are the answers he must be given. These four archetypes can ultimately serve as a model for how to educate children.

The wise son asks, with genuine intellectual curiosity: “What is the meaning of the statutes and laws that G-d has commanded?” Just like on Passover, when Jews eat matzah rather than bread, the wise son seeks to understand the essence of the laws. In modern times, the wise son is the truly unique student, who eschews his own ego and is only concerned with grasping the truth. Yet even with a rare mind like his, the wise son must be positively challenged rather than pampered. The wise son needs to focus his gifts and avoid potentially negative influences, which could easily turn him into the wicked son.

The wicked son is intentionally vague when he haughtily asks: “What is this service to you?” To you being the operative phrase, since the wicked son is choosing to separate himself from the Jewish community. In today’s day and age, the wicked son is a metaphor for children who are more concerned with fitting in than honoring their family’s values. One might ask: Why is the wicked son second in the list of sons? Perhaps he should have been relegated to last. But since the wicked son is still engaged and asking questions – albeit with a flippant attitude – he is still connected on some level. With the right educational approach, a “wicked” son could easily be turned into a “wise” one.

The simple son asks plainly: “What is this?” While the simple son is definitely not an intellectual, he has a kind and generous heart. He is asking questions because he wants to do the right thing. But his understanding of Judaism – and life in general – comes from experience, not from books. In today’s day and age, the simple son is the energetic, highly active student, who needs a more kinetic-based approach to learning. To grow as a thinker, the simple son must have all of his senses engaged in the learning process.

Finally, the fourth son is the one who does not know how to ask. He is not a simpleton – he is apathetic. He’s so laid back he doesn’t even care. In modern times, the fourth son represents the student who cares far more about his Game Boy than his studies. Not only does the fourth son not care, he doesn’t even listen. The challenge for educators of the forth son is to turn his heart – to turn him on and tune him in to learning.

While each of the Haggadah’s Four Son’s offers insight into how to educate the essential student archetypes, they also present seder-goers on opportunity to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses. The Four Sons live in all of us: Sometimes we are genuinely searching, other times we are rebelling; sometimes we connect through our heart first, then our head, and other times we are just too tired, stressed or burned out to care anymore. The lesson of the Four Sons is to appropriately nurture that spark for learning that lives within all of us.