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How to do Sippur Yitziyas Mitzrayim so children will listen:


April 14th, 2014


Four children- raised in the same home, by the same parents- with vastly different personalities and needs… it’s a familiar story. 


But we, the generation raised in the post “labeling theory” and “self-fulfilling prophecy” research, might feel uncomfortable tagging our kids with designations such as “wise” or “wicked”… right? 


And yet… we need to have some idea of who they are and what they’re like, in order to give them what they need. In fact, the Chumash itself does not name the sons- it just poses their questions- their titles are listed in the Haggadah, but the children are not addressed with them. 


Perhaps this is instructive: the questions that children ask are presented to us as they are- the way G-d made them, and so they are included in Torah b’chtav, the Written Law.


But the way we interpret their language is only in Torah she’baal peh, Oral instruction, - that is not to be canonized and documented, but only verbalized and analyzed discreetly by their parents for use in understanding their learning styles.


Just as the Written Law is immutable, while the Oral Law is by its nature an ongoing dialogue of inter-Rabbinical debate, the words of our children come from their hearts, but our parental reactions are an ongoing, truth-seeking process. 


No one child (or adult) is always a wise, wicked, simple or silent son; these are prototypes for varying postures, dominant traits, moods, and moments.


The oft-quoted verse in Mishlei 22:6 Chanoch L’naar al pi darko gam ki yazkin lo yassur mimeno: inaugurate a child via the language of his path, thus even as he ages, he won’t stray from it, highlights the value of addressing a child on his wavelength, investing in the endurance of the message.


There is no one formula, one size fits all, or even a section of the Shulchan Aruch for parenting. It is far more of an art than a science. If a child is educated in keeping with his essential nature, then he will have little reason to reject the loving parental channeling of his strengths.


Pirkei Avos characterizes a chacham, a wise one, as one who learns from everyone (1), and one who looks to the future (2). The first quality, learning from others, is a double-edged sword. While the intelligence of a child to see another person and say: “what can I learn from him?” is a perceptive tool, it can also present the challenge of impressionability. The advantage this child has is that he articulates and specifies his questions:


“I want to explore the nuances of observance: edos, chukim, mishpatim- the historical, Divine, and moral implications of rituals.”


By providing clarity and specificity, this curious child is now armed with the power of knowledge to confront doubts and exposures, now and in the future.


This is the two year old who is constantly demanding: What’s that? Why? Who’s that?


And the 5th grader who keeps interrupting the class to ask philosophical questions that are not in the “mi amar el mi” section of the targilon.


And the teenager who craves the late night discussions about how we know G-d exists, Torah is true, Judaism is right, and why the righteous suffer.


The challenge in parenting the chacham is to take the time and patience to answer all his questions thoroughly (and read through the entire self-illustrated school haggadah)- until afikoman. But it’s a worthwhile investment.


I used to wonder why we don’t correct the chacham for saying “asher tziva H”E eschem”- that our G-d commanded you, the way we chastise the rasha for saying “mah ha’avoda hazos lachem”- what is this service to you. Then I discovered that the Baalei HaTosfos (3) and the Meshech Chochma (4) address this question:


When the chacham says eschem, it's in the context of “Elokeinu”- our G-d; he includes himself in the congregation of G-d’s constituents, and only says eschem with regard to the tzivui- command, since technically speaking, he himself was not physically there for the tzivui; this pasuk was originally said by the second generation following Yitzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus, and so it was accurate to say to their fathers:


“What did our G-d command you?” (In fact, the Yerushalmi (5) uses the girsa of “osanu- to us” because that is the script for sons whose fathers were also not yet born at that time.)


A possible extrapolation from this is that it is critical to give children the benefit of the doubt, for example: when they say things that could be interpreted as disrespectful, to initially assume that they meant no disrespect. Few mistakes are as emotionally damaging as condemning an innocent child, and so many inquisitive children are misread.


Additionally, the verse introducing the chacham’s question says: “ki yishalcha bincha”- when your son asks you- asking is a sincere request for information. The pasuk introducing the Rasha’s question states: “ki yomru alechem bneichem” when your sons say to you- this is a rhetorical statement, a cynical challenge, not a genuine question.


Much can be deduced from the nonverbal: tone, timing, body language. A vital tool in parenting is to read the meta-message between the lines and beyond the words of the child, and realize when a lecture will fall on deaf ears. At moments like this we attend to the underlying emotion (anger, fear, doubt, pain) rather than the literal verbiage. This child is feeling excluded, he is lashing out, and rendering himself an outsider.


How do we respond to the Rasha? Hakheh es shinav- blunt his teeth. Shinav means teeth, but it also means sharpness (as in: v’shinantam l’vanecha). There is a sharpness to him that needs to be softened. We don’t even reply to the content of his statement (according to Rambam-6); we take his tone as a warning to identify the source of his causticness and try to heal it. We respond to him indirectly, in third person, and try to do influential damage control by responding to the “eyno yode’ah lish’ol” saying: “he who excludes himself, had he been in Egypt would not have been saved”. Redemption is a direct outgrowth of faith, and therefore a Rasha, who declares his disassociation, would not have been salvageable.


We don’t know why the silent son doesn’t ask; he may be an introvert or a late bloomer, it could be lack of interest, learning disability, distractedness, emotional distress or something else entirely. He’s not telling us, and neither does the Haggadah. He may require extra doses of maternal encouragement- “at p’tach lo”. The important thing is to acknowledge him- to let him know we are here, and that this is how we relate to those who want to know and those who don’t. He is observing his siblings, and learning that a child who can communicate and engage will have stimulating conversation as elaborate or concise as he needs. Some children learn by watching the world, and so our job is to put on the right show.


The Tam asks simply: ma zos- what’s this? And we respond in kind: succinctly and generally. As enthusiastic parents with a rich and copious weltanschauung to impart, it can be tempting to overload children; with information, with lessons, with lecturing, with cultural stimulation- with simply more than they can absorb. The ability to hold back and only convey what can be received is a behavior we emulate from G-d Himself called tzimtzum. In this case, less is more. If a child exhibits limitedness, then responding in his language will benefit him; just as Hashem gave Torah to every individual in accordance with his or her capacity to receive it. It’s a challenge for caring parents to calibrate our own need to give our family “the world”, and instead be attuned to what input will allow each child to thrive at each developmental stage.


In truth, every child (and adult-child of Hashem) is an amalgam of all four sons. We have our areas and moments of wisdom (chacham), our inclinations toward evil (rasha), our moods of simplicity (tam), and times of being at a loss for words, not even knowing how we feel or what to think (she’eyno yode’ah) . In our own moments of query, we need to know when to address our questions with intellectual honesty and research (chacham), versus when to quell the negative inner dialogue that seeks to disparage (rasha), when to summarize and move on (tam), and when to acknowledge confusion and quietly reflect (eyno yode’ah). As parents, as we learn to relate in a healthy way to each of our own inner voices and modes, we can become more compassionate and effective in responding to those of our children. With G-d's help, we will be successful at cultivating chachma, transforming rishus, protecting temimus, and preempting passivity, in our own souls and those of our children.


*Note: Much of this article is adapted from the Sefer Hegyonei Halacha by Rav Yitzchak Mirsky

1 Avos 4:1

2 Avos 2:13, with Tamid 32

3 Devarim 6:20

4 Commentary to Parshas Bo

5 Pesachim Perek 10

6 Hilchos Chametz U’matzah 7:2

 

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