The Grief Of The One Who Does Not Know What To Ask

D'var Torah
Parashat Shemini
April 21, 2017

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Dear Friends,
As I considered what to teach about this evening, my thoughts kept looping back, oddly enough, to one section of the Passover Seder: the very familiar passage about The Four Children. The Haggadah reminds us that the Torah tells us four separate times that we must teach our children about the Exodus from Egypt. From this, the rabbis infer that there are four different kinds of “children,” four different mindsets or temperaments that a person might bring to the Seder observance. I'm sure many of us could recite these characters with our eyes closed: The Wise, The Wicked, The Simple and The One Who Does Not Know What to Ask.
The Haggadah tells us that the Wise child is the one who is totally with the program, super eager to learn everything there is to know about Passover. The Wise Child can't wait to study all the complex rules of Passover.
By contrast, the Wicked Child is portrayed as skeptical, snarky, obnoxious and very determined not to get with the program. The Wicked Child fits in well with what the director of Greene Family Camp once described to me as the way that some teenagers approach educational programming at camp. They are, he joked, “militantly blasé.”
The so-called Wicked Child also reminds me of the ridiculous character that comedian Fred Armisen used to portray in the old Saturday Night Live sketch, “The Californians.” That is, the Wicked Child looks at the other Seder participants and says, with a smirk, “What are you doing here?”
Like the Wise Child, the Simple Child is completely “with the Seder program,” but in a different way. He or she notices the unaccustomed seating arrangement around the table, as well as all the unusual objects and unfamiliar condiments (which is precisely why they are there, to elicit that kind of curiosity). In response to his or her question, “What's all this about,” we respond, simply, “This is about God taking us out of Egypt.”
And then, finally, there is The One Who Does Not Know What to Ask. With this child, the Haggadah text suggests, at p’takh lo, which means, literally, “You open for him.” That is, you take this kid by the hand and gently begin to unpack the meanings of the Seder.
The Four Children are so obviously symbolic and metaphorical that there are many readings of who these four characters might represent. One reading suggests that they represent four consecutive stages of each person's life. Another theorizes that the meaning of The Four Children is generational, a cautionary tale on how easy it is to lose touch with Judaism, descending from generation to generation from Jewish scholarship and devotion to complete ignorance.
I find this to be a rather dour, ungenerous way of understanding The Four Children, but it's out there in circulation. For example, many years ago, a Jewish historian, who had been doing research on the history of rabbis in Texas, gave me a photocopy of a historic document in which an early 20th Century Rabbi of our own congregation wrote a letter to a colleague, complaining of this congregation's unwillingness to pay him a decent salary and of leadership’s unhappiness that he was giving some of his time to the Jewish students at the University of Texas. Apparently on the verge of resigning, he complained in this letter to his colleagues that these Jews of Austin were “she’anennu yod’im lish’ol,” those who don't even know what to ask. Thank God that, a century later, this is no longer true.
That aside, I most prefer the understanding that The Four Children represent attitudes, and states of mind and feeling, that we all cycle through at various times. Sometimes we are eager beavers, full of enthusiasm and curiosity. At other times we are cranky, resentful and cynical – we sense our own stubbornness and resistance and may not even know why we are pushing back as hard as we are. At still other times, we are the consummate newbie, confronted with the unfamiliar, yet open to and reaching out for guidance and understanding.
What, then, are we to make of The One Who Does Not Know What to Ask? Is there a respectful and compassionate way to understand this Child, the one who sits in silence, unable to make a sound?
As a rabbi, sometimes you pick up a teaching or a story and you teach it and repeat it over and over again. And then, at a certain point, you begin to question yourself and think, “Is this teaching I've been using repeatedly really a thing? Is it even accurate or written down anywhere? And where did I pick this up, anyway?
So it's been for me over the years with The One Who Does Not Know What to Ask. I knew that, somewhere along the way, I had heard a teaching that, paradoxically, understood this silent child to be the wisest one of all.
I started poking around in the commentaries of a few different Haggadot. After a while, I came across a modern understanding of The Four Children as a whole, and of the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask in particular. The comment says, “[the] one who does not know how to ask may be silenced by the rules of society. The silence may hide an exceptional, sensitive child whose questions are choked. A parent can “open the child up,” remove the obstructions, enable personal growth and break stereotypes.” I think this is brilliant, because the commentator, an Israeli author named, Yaariv Ben Aharon, leads us to an important but easy to miss question: Why is this child is silent, speechless, dumbfounded?
And then I found a much older but still related teaching, this one from the Polish, Hasidic Rabbi Chayim of Sanz. He understands The One Who Does Not Know What to Ask as being a person who “knows what they do not know.” Noticing that the word at in the Haggadah's phrase at p’takh lo - “you open for him” - is made up of the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph and tav, he suggests that from The Silent Child's place of humility and openness, all the heavenly gates “from A to Z,” may open.
Rabbi Chayim not only answers Yaariv Ben Aharon’s question about why the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask is silent, but also elevates The Silent Child's Very silence to the level of a virtue. In this reading, the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask is silent because he or she is overwhelmed with wonder and awe. This child is silent because they’re undefended enough to fully experience something that – like many of the most important things in life – is too big to be contained in mere words. Language being inadequate, they are moved to silence. And from that silence, wisdom can grow. This is reminiscent of the Buddhist concept of Shoshin (初心) meaning “beginner's mind”. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.
On a personal level, rediscovering the Passover Seder's Silent Child as a kind of role model has been comforting to me in the days and weeks since we lost my father, just before Passover. I am finding that grief of this magnitude has situated me, quite often in recent days, in a place beyond words, beyond what a person can express in ordinary language. The normal vocabulary of daily life is inadequate. Perhaps this is the reason that, in tomorrow morning's Torah portion, the Torah tells us that after two of the high priest Aaron's sons suffer a tragic death, vayidom Aharon – “and Aaron was silent.” There was nothing in his heart at that moment that could be put into words.
Perhaps there is also nothing to say because, like the sights and tastes and smells of the Passover Seder, grief, too, is an embodied, physical experience, and that physicality changes by the day, and sometimes, even by the moment. Sometimes grief is being tired to the bone. Sometimes it is a tightness or heaviness in the chest. Sometimes it is kind of fogginess that makes it difficult to string thoughts together. Sometimes it manifested in unexpected weeping. Sometimes it is a sensation of being lost and aimless. Sometimes, it is even an unexpected smile or chuckle, as some sweet memory rises to the surface. Yes, like the Seder's Hillel sandwich, loss can be as bitter as horseradish and as sweet as haroset, all the same time.
It is good at a time like this to have a tradition to turn to, to have your Jewish ancestors offering you wisdom across the generations; wisdom, and a path forward through the heaviness, the fog and the confusion. “This is how we do it,” they say, day by day: shiva, then shloshim, then the first year, then the unveiling, and then Kaddish, year after year after year. We will hold your hand, they say; you are not entirely alone.
And it is good to have that role model of The One Who Does Not Know What to Ask. It is good, amid grief, not to have to be the flamboyantly learned Wise Child who has a clever answer for everything, or the confrontational Wicked Child, or even the Simple Child, who feels pressured to say something, even if it's just, “What's this?” It is good to be allowed not to even know what to say, and for those around you to know that your silence is permitted and that thus, even they don't have to say something comforting, or profound, or wise. Instead, along with your ancestors long gone, they, too, hold your hand, cook for you, give tzedakah in memory of the one you lost.
In closing, let me say that I hesitated to speak about these things tonight. After all, it's Shabbat, and on Shabbat one does not sit shiva – Shabbat is rest, pleasure and joy. And that is one reason why neither a Torah reading nor a Haftarah reading nor a sermon may end on a down note – the rabbis teach us that it must always conclude with a nechemta, which is Aramaic for “a comforting word.”
So let us remember that all of us, at various points along our life's journey, will be The One Who Does Not Know What to Ask – the Silent Child Of the Seder, silent, wordless, like Aaron who lost his sons. Let us have the wisdom to revere and respect this silence, knowing that it may reflect a hidden heart bursting with that which is beyond words. And, above all, may the deeply human and universal experiences of love, loss and grief teach us hesed, loving kindness. May the truths we learn when we, too, Do Not Know What to Ask, remind us to be tender, and gentle, and loving, and sweet to each other.
Shabbat Shalom.

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