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Thought for the Day: Talking to Your Children -- Lessons From the Four Sons

We speak of four types of sons at the seder: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know to ask. To the wise son, we explain all the details of Pesach observance.  To the simple son, who asks nothing more than, "What is all this?", we give a simple answer.  So far so good; we answer according to the level of understanding and interest of the child.  To the wicked son, however, we give a sharp answer -- ha'keh es shinav/blunt his teeth.  Not really in consonance with even tough love; just hit him in the teeth.  And the one who doesn't know to ask?  We are told that we need to start, we need to open him up.  And what is the guidance we are given to start the conversation?  The very same answer that we use to blunt the teeth of the wicked son!  We started off with clear and understandable direction from our Sages, but we end with confusing and seemingly counter-productive advice!

But Chazal speak in riddles and hints; they are passing to us the keys to understanding why we are here and how to utilize our present to achieve eternity, as revealed by the Creator Himself.  Our sages speak in riddles and hints because the keys are only effective in the hands of one who is serious and disciplined.  Delving into the words of our sages to understand their message is the training we need to become that serious and disciplined warrior who can utilize this world to its full potential.

The wicked son asks: "mah ha'avoda ha'zos lachem?"/What is this service to you?  Which means, Chazal say, "to you" and not to him.  He has at best an intellectual curiosity in what you are doing; it is only tangentially relevant to his life.  And so we answer him: "ba'vur zeh asah HaShem li b'tzeitzi mi'mitzrayim."/[I do this] because of what HaShem did for me with bringing me out of Mitzrayim.  For me and not for him; for had be been there he would have have been saved.  Note, however, that the statement attributed to the wicked son is asked in chapter 12, verse 26; the answer, though is much later; chapter 13, verse 8.  Moreover, the context of the question is that Klal Yisrael has been told (while still in Egypt) that when the eventually come to Eretz Yisrael and they are keeping all the details of the Pesach offering that their children will ask for explanation.  The Torah even tells us how to answer; see verse 27 immediately following.  In fact, the S'porno explains that child's notices that every household is bringing what seems to be a community offering in the middle of the day and usually a communal offering is performed with a single animal for the entire community; once in the morning, once late afternoon.  We are to answer him that this offering corresponds to the miracle HaShem did for us in Eqypt at midnight by killing their first born and saving us.  Since an offering cannot be made at night, we bring it mid-day; since each of our families were saved, each family brings it's own offering.  A simple, straightforward answer.

So what are Chazal telling us?  When a child asks a question, you need to answer him; on point and at his level.  But you need to do more, you also have to hear his question.  How does he phrase his question?  How does he frame his words?  Upon reflection, when you detect something that needs correction, you formulate a plan; you act, you do not react.  The question was reasonable in context, but he did exclude himself from the community.  Later, when the time is right, discuss the topic again, choosing your words carefully to address the problem.  Not straight out, not "hitting him over the head" with "how dare you separate yourself like that!"  Instead, "blunt his teeth"; take away the sharpness of his argument.  By saying "what HaShem did for me", he will think, "wait!  HaShem did it for me also".  Let him come to the conclusion; guide, don't force.  Also realize that a child who has no interest in asking is on the same path as the one who actively separates himself.  When opening him up, therefore, he gets the same answer.

Whether wise, simple, disinterested, or actively wicked... he's your son.

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