The literal approach to the Haggadah’s four children is straightforward. On four different occasions, the Torah describes questions asked by children about Passover. Based on the language of the question, the author of the Haggadah labels each of them. One questioner is described as wise, the second rebellious, the third simple, and the fourth not even knowing how to ask. And the Haggadah, basing itself on the Torah text, offers answers to suit the specific educational needs of each child. But if we go beyond the literal approach, hidden messages emerge.
While this section of the Haggadah is associated with youngsters, is it not possible that the children referred to here include adults of all ages? After all, no matter how old we are, we are all children – children of our parents and children of God.
From this perspective, the message of the four children is that every Jew has his or her place in Judaism. The challenge is to have different types of Jews seated around the Seder table in open respectful dialogue, each contributing to the Seder discussion, each exhibiting love for the other. It also reminds us that we have much to learn from everyone – this realization is what truly makes us wise. In the words of Ben Zoma, who is mentioned just before this section in the Hagaddah, “eizehu hakham? Halomed mikol Adam. Who is wise? One who learns from each person.” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)
Another approach to the four children: Perhaps they are not four separate individuals? After all, no one is completely wise, totally rebellious, perfectly simple, nor absolutely unable to ask. Rather, the four children are really one individual in whom there are each of these elements: wisdom, rebelliousness, simplicity and silence.
The message: as we sit opposite each other at the Seder, we ought to recognize that everyone has strengths, represented for example by the hakham (the wise child), and weaknesses, represented, for example by the rasha (the rebellious child). The challenge is not to allow the weaknesses we know to exist within ourselves to destroy our self image. For that matter, neither ought we allow the weaknesses we see in others to destroy our relationship with them. As opposed to our first hidden message that teaches integration, this approach teaches us that there are times when weaknesses should be set aside in order to continue on.
A final thought: Perhaps the most important child is none of the four, but the fifth, the one who is not mentioned, the one who is not even at the Seder table. It was Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits who once quipped: “Who is a Jew? One whose grandchildren are Jewish.” The sad reality is that for most Jews their grandchildren are not Jewish or will not be.
The message at the Seder is to reach out to that fifth child. Maybe that’s why we open the door for Eliyahu Ha‑Navi (Elijah the Prophet). It’s Eliyahu, according to the Prophets, who returns the hearts of children to their parents. (Malakhi 3:23‑24)
As we reach out for the missing child, we ought recall the words of Rav Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory: “Do you know the way you walk back from the Holy Wall? You don’t turn around and walk away. When you meet the Czar of Russia, you don’t turn around and walk away, you walk backwards. And I want to bless you, when your children grow up and they walk out of your house, and they build their own houses, sad enough, a lot of children turn around and they don’t build a Jewish house any more. I want to bless you your children should walk away backwards.”