On the surface, the question asked by the “Wise” child at the Passover Seder doesn’t seem particularly wise.
The child asks,
What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that the Lord, our God, has commanded to you?
This seems more like a search for knowledge than a display of wisdom.
Notice that this child is labeled as “Wise” in contrast to the “Wicked” child. If the child were the opposite of the “Wicked” child, we might expect this child to be labeled the “good” child. In contrast to the “simple” child we might expect this child to be “complex.”
In asking about the laws that God commanded “you,” the Wise child indicates some separation from the parents. But unlike the “Wicked” child, the Wise child doesn’t get called out for it; we aren’t told to bash in his teeth.
If you’ve ever had a sibling who garnered praise for the same thing that got you in trouble, you might feel some resentment toward the Wise child.
This child says what people want to hear. He asks the “right” question. He’s a suck up. And I realized that is the wisdom of this child.
What makes this child so Wise?
Signals With Language
This child may have the same doubts as the so-called “Wicked” child, or may harbor an intention to provoke change. But rather than challenging the parents outright, this child asks about the laws that “our God has commanded you.”
By using “our,” that child aligns with the parents. The question sounds smart and indicates a desire to learn. It doesn’t come across as a challenge, the way the Wicked child’s question does. It feels safe.
It’s a signal to convey an affinity with the people in charge. Theres a wisdom here in self-preserving, avoiding the fate of the “wicked” child. And also a bigger lesson.
A Lesson in How to Create Change
There’s a lesson for us here in how to effect change.
There are two truths about change and challenge that seem to be at odds:
First, the best ideas for change to a system or structure come from outsiders, who can see the blind spots and bring new perspectives. Those who are inside a system or benefitting from it are least likely to see its flaws. Even if they do see the opportunities for doing things differently, the people in authority often don’t want to change because they are benefitting from the status quo. The first function of a system is to protect itself.
Second, change and challenge is best effected from within a structure. A group in power is more likely to listen to one of their own than to an outsider who doesn’t speak the language.
These feel like polar opposites: it takes an outsider to see the opportunities but the people in authority don’t want to listen to the outsider. This is why progress gets stagnant, why companies, industries, and social structures persist with ineffective or inequitable systems for far too long.
Cultivating Trust Through Common Language
The wisdom of the wise child is that the child “reads the room” and speaks the language of those with whom they wish to earn favor.
The child’s question is a signal. They speak about “our” God to convey that they are aligned with the parent, in the same way that we might speak the words used by people we want to align with.
When we align with others through common interests, we build trust. That trust gives us access and leverage to promote change from within.