One of the highlights of every Passover Seder is the reading about the Four Sons (or children):
The first child asks:
What are the testimonies, decrees, and ordinances which Hashem, our God, has commanded you?
The second child asks:
What is this service to you?
The third child asks:
What is this?
The fourth child doesn’t ask anything.
The description of the four children is based on four places in the Torah (the old testament) that describe a dialogue between parents and children about the rituals relating to Passover, and instructs the parents to reference the miracle of the Exodus and how God took us out of Egypt.
From the distinct phrasing of each verse, the sages detected four distinctive personalities, which led to the description of the four children as presented in the Haggadah.
They label these children as: the Wise son, the Wicked son, the Simple son, and the son Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask.
The original text in the Torah doesn’t label the children. The description of the children as “Wise,” “Wicked,” “Simple,” or “Not Knowing How to Ask” came from the sages who wrote the Haggadah.
My very simple (and also complex) question is: WHY?
The Problem with Labels
Labels confer identities. And our identity — who we believe we are — is a strong driver of our actions. Perhaps the strongest driver. We become conditioned to meeting the expectations embedded within the labels conferred on us — especially in the family dynamic.
Labels also separate. They create distinctions, an us vs them mentality. Labels are how oppressors seek to justify their oppression of another group. When we believe a person to be “wicked” we are more likely to believe bad things about them, because those stories “fit” with what we “know.”
Considering The Underlying Assumptions
There seems to be a lot of assumption and inference about motive and intention here.
- What makes the first child’s question “wise?”
- What is so wicked or evil about the second child’s question?
- The third child’s question is so broad and unspecific that it’s hardly simple.
- And why did the sages assume that the child who does not ask a question doesn’t know how to ask?
But those assumptions aren’t the only assumptions we can make.
Maybe the first child is masking ignorance by asking a question that parses a distinction without much practical utility.
Perhaps the second child’s question is a sincere attempt to deduce meaning and purpose.
The third child might be sitting in judgment, proclaiming “what is this?” as short for what are you even doing here with all this stuff?
And perhaps the fourth child is perfectly capable of asking a question, but prefers to first observe and absorb the situation before asking a question.
What Labels Reveal
Ultimately, labels say more about the person conferring the label than the person being labeled. The labels given to the four sons reflect the values of the sages.
Similarly, when we label people, we may cast them in a certain light, but it is really our own values that are revealed in the labeling.
We All Use Labels
The sages weren’t alone in using labels to categorize people. We all are guilty of this, toward others and ourselves.
The Haggadah can serve as a mirror to reflect to us where we label people. We can use this awareness to shift our assumptions. Just as I offered alternate theories for each of the four children, we can do this in our real lives, poking holes at the assumptions underlying the labels we use.
What happens when we change the assumptions we are making about a person, and remove the labels we’ve conferred on them? How does that change our perception of them? How does it change our perception of ourselves?
We might find some deep wisdom buried in this exercise.