Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 5: Parashat Vayikra: March 27, 2020

Dear Holy Friends,

Let me begin by wishing you each a Shabbat of peace and contentment, health and blessings. Tonight, we begin serving our community through virtual Shabbat services and yesterday we began the month of Nissan, which reminds us that our Pesach is only two weeks away! Under the best of circumstances, Pesach is tricky to prepare for and this year we are all be working under more stressful circumstances than usual. Nonetheless, allow me to share some comments regarding a famous section of the Haggadah.

One of my favorite passages in the text is the story of the Four Sons. They are introduced as the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the son who does not even know how to ask. (Parenthetically, in my house, where I have three daughters, as the hour grew late, the kids always insisted that we should be able to skip this section as it was not applicable to our family!).

There are many beautiful interpretations regarding this section. Some commentators believe that the four sons are an expression of each individual’s personal spiritual journey through communal life. In our relationship with God and the Jewish community, sometimes we act and interact wisely, sometimes we are oppositional, sometimes we blindly follow others and, on the rare occasion, we don’t even know what to say. As we continue to think about the community and shul that we are all missing, the story reminds us that our congregation is our source of strength and comfort, especially when we are willing to offer the best of ourselves.

A second interpretation suggests that throughout our lives and our interactions with family, we ourselves play each of these roles depending on the circumstance. Sometimes we are the wise one in the room, solving problems and navigating differences of opinion. Sometimes, we have difficulty. Often, we are pure (not simple) in what we offer from our heart, our ongoing love and support, to those around us. And again, sometimes when situations are complicated or emotionally charged, we are not even sure what to say or what to ask. But being present, even in the absence of words, is often the greatest gift that we can provide.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Jerusalem wrote in his Passover Haggadah that the Four Sons represented the story of European immigration to America. He suggested that the wise son was the one who group up learning in the Yeshivoth of the Old Country. The wicked one, was the first generation in America who, in an effort to become a “good American,” denied all connections with the parochialism of religious tradition. The second generation in America was the pure one, simple in the sense that they may not have been taught the religious traditions from their parents, but nonetheless, came to a pure and genuine curiosity about the faith that was not shared.

As I think about our current situation, I am suggesting that, in light of the pandemic, the story of the four sons still resonates. Perhaps the Chacham is represented by the scientists and medical teams fervently working to keep our congregation safe. Perhaps, the Rasha is the one who denies the statistics and considers this a charade based on politics and power. We, I believe, need to be the Tam- the simpleton. We need to do as we are told and follow exactly the orders of our elected officials, even if it means sometimes, we don’t get to ask the questions we wish or receive the answers which we desire.

Finally, the most amazing aspect of our tradition is that, yes, these texts continue to speak to us. I urge you always to offer your own insights and nuances to not only the Haggadah but also the Siddur and Torah readings. With your wisdom and your inquiry, our community will continue to be a source of strength to the entire Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser