Monday, April 6, 2009

I am the Arba Banim [Four Children]

Here's a brief pre-Pesach seder thought, too simplistic for a derashah but interesting nonetheless:

The fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot includes a mishnah describing four paths in generosity:
Those who say, 'What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours,'
Those who say, 'What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine,'
Those who say, 'What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine,' and
Those who say, 'What's mine is yours and what's yours is yours.'

My read is that these paths are not mutually exclusive, descriptions of an undiversified personality; rather, they are traits found by degrees in every human being. All of us possess selfishness and selflessness and self-protection, and the point of the mishnah is to counsel us in the weight we give to these traits.

I read the Seder's arba banim, the Torah's four children to whom we tell the story of the Exodus, in the same way. It is a rare child who lives in a monochromatic mood, challenging or ignoring or studying. We are all tam-foolish inside, we are all chacham-wise inside, we are all eino yodeia lishol-agnatological inside, and we are all rasha-wicked inside.

(Well, maybe you're not, but I am. And it's my blog. The comments are yours, the blog is mine.)

So, in the course of a day I am a motivated student and someone who just tunes out, a fool who reads the same sentence repeatedly without comprehending and, yes, a challenging rebel who wishes to tell rather than be ask, to instruct rather than follow commands.

And these four children tell the story of the Jews as a nation, too.

We have been wise, seeking to learn; look at our patriarchs and matriarchs, look at the generation of Chizkiyah which is credited with national scholarship in the minutiae of impurity and purity.
And we have been wicked, declaring independence from Gd and Torah, more times than we care to recall.
And we have been foolish, our ears deafened by temptation, as in the days of the kings who led us into idolatry.
And we have been unable to ask, a nation so sunken into assimilation that we have not even realized there was a religious question to ask.

And on both an individual plane and a national plane, identifying and defining the appropriate response is not the first step, but the second. The first step is to identify and define the children, to diagnose and know to what extent we are one or the other. This self-awareness must come first; afterward, we can devote our energy to the solutions, and to moving ahead.


  1. I don't think that was simplistic. I think it was fascinating.

  2. that was awesome!

    These days I am definitely the asking one, i am sure some people wish i was more like someone who wouldn't ask so much! LOL

  3. Thanks!
    What I mean by "simplistic" is that it is an observation without a deeper analysis. "Complex" would have been to follow up with a discussion of why we all have these traits, or why the Haggadah breaks them down into separate personalities.