Before we can get down to the main order of business on the Seder night — v’higadeta l’vincha — we have to understand that our children are individuals, and that what works with one may not work with another.
That’s why the Haggadah tells us early on about the four sons. Because if we don’t internalize the fact that there are, indeed, four types of sons, then we are doomed to fail at our main challenge as parents: to pass on our heritage to the next generation.
In his commentary on Mishlei, the Gaon of Vilna states that each child is born with his own nature, his own mazal, that cannot be changed. Chanoch lanaar al pi darko — “train the youth according to his way” (22:7) — means that the goal is to help the child become a tzaddik within the context of his unique nature.
So, for instance, if he is born under the sign of Maadim, he will be attracted to spilling blood. But he can choose to be a mohel (tzaddik), a kosher butcher (beinoni) or, chalilah, an armed robber or killer (rasha).
Adds the Vilna Gaon: If we educate and guide children in accordance with their natural leanings, then we’ll merit seeing the fulfillment of the second part of the passuk: gam ki yazkin lo yassur mimena, “even when he grows old, he will not swerve from it.”
Recently a very successful businessman in Israel was interviewed by a local newspaper. He explained that as a youth in yeshivah he excelled in learning, but at a certain point in his teen years he wanted to pursue a different path. His Rosh Yeshivah was convinced that this youth had a great future in the Torah world and vehemently objected. When the boy refused to back down, the Rosh Yeshivah suggested that they go to Harav Shach, zt”l, and ask his advice.
Harav Shach began by asking the boy what he wanted, to which the boy responded, in a heartfelt appeal, that his mission was elsewhere, outside of the yeshivah world. After listening carefully, Harav Shach turned to the Rosh Yeshivah and said, “Don’t break the bachur.”
The Haggadah, in telling us that there are four sons — the chacham, the rasha, the tam, the she’eino yode’a lish’ol — is saying that we have to recognize differences. The boy who has a heart of gold but isn’t a lamdan can become a tzaddik in chessed. Our job, as parents, teachers, Rabbanim and the community at large, is to recognize each child’s nature and help him reach his potential as a yerei Shamayim. And to do that, we have to heed Harav Shach’s instruction not to break the bachur. Do no damage!
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The Seder night, for many of us, is emotion-laden. We can clean and cook and set the most beautiful table, but we don’t control who is at our table (and who isn’t), what they look like, where they’re at spiritually. Sometimes there’s an uncomfortable silence when we read about the four sons and come to the rasha.
Harav Reuven Margulies, in his commentary on the Haggadah, points out that before we list the four sons we bless Hashem four times: Baruch Hamakom, baruch Hu, baruch sheNassan Torah l’amo Yisrael, baruch Hu.” We are thanking Hashem for any type of son He gives us, even the rasha.
When Moshe Rabbeinu tells Am Yisrael that they will have children and enter Eretz Yisrael and they respond by bowing in gratitude, the son he is promising them is the rasha (Shemos 12, 27), the one who says, “What is this work to you?” Why are they bowing in gratitude for sons who are resha’im?
Answers Harav Margulies, Moshe is telling them that even their children who are off the derech will never be completely pushed out of Klal Yisrael. Moshe is promising that our children will have kedushas Yisrael forever.
We start the night of the Seder as slaves and end up free men. We start as idol-worshippers and end up as an Am Segulah. Just as the children who grew up in Mitzrayim and their parents and grandparents couldn’t fathom how Am Yisrael could be redeemed from the bondage of Mitzrayim, but then watched it happen k’heref ayin, we too can’t see how some of our children, much as we want them, can make their way back.
But in reliving the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the darkest moments and the redemption, we internalize that reality can change, and that Geulah can come in an instant.
The night we left Mitzrayim is referred to in the Torah as leil shimurim l’Hashem, the night that was longed for by Hashem. The Sforno explains that just as Am Yisrael yearned for their redemption, so too does Hashem yearn in anticipation for the final Geulah, may it come speedily in our days.