Four Chassidic Sons 1
Baruch Ha-Makom; baruch Hu. The short paragraph uses the word baruch four times, one for each of the Four Sons. This is indeed the point. The evening holds out a promise to all, in whatever spiritual circumstances they find themselves. The most important encouragement comes from the knowledge that Hashem treats him as a son. Each one of them owes Hashem a special and different blessing of gratitude. On the night of Pesach, no one is left behind.
The wise son notes the myriad halachic details of the Seder evening. “How is it that all the halachic nuance – the mitzvos that take the form of remembrances and statutes and laws – seems to work so perfectly for you, and fails for me?” The Hebrew word for command – tzivah – is related, writes the Dvar Moshe, to the Aramaic tzavsa, clinging and closeness. The young man asks the experienced tzadik. “I see that through your service of G-d in all the mitzvos of Pesach you have merited the closeness of devekus to Hashem. I have tried the same. I have been faithful to the same details in the law, but I have not attained this devekus. Where have I gone wrong? What is your secret?”
We answer with a point of law about the eating of the Pesach offering. It is the last of our meal. We eat nothing afterwards; we eat it at the point in the meal that we have sated ourselves, and our stomachs do not call out for more. In a manner, we put our ordinary eating behind us before we are ready to approach the central mitzvah of the evening, the eating of the korban Pesach.
Therein lies the difference between a mitzvah performed, and devekus achieved. You may be meticulous in your observance, we tell him, but you need to do more than that if you wish to live at the spiritual cutting- edge. If you wish to know true closeness to Hashem, if you choose to find your chief joy in bonding with Him – you must wean yourself away from attachment to earthly enjoyment. If you dull the experience of a mitzvah by marrying it to less worthy pleasures, don’t expect the ultimate spiritual payoff.
The evil son is not an incorrigible reprobate. We are not dealing with someone who has walked out of Jewish life. What makes him a rasha (in his own eyes) is harboring an active and vigorous yetzer hora that allows him no peace. He sees himself falling for its blandishments more often than his friends and associates.
Dejectedly, he approaches yet another Yom Tov. He has been there before. He looks jealously at those around him, all eager and expectant, awaiting the privilege of participating in a great event. He has tried that all too many times. With each attempt to do the right thing, he is confronted by roadblocks of difficulty and temptation. He is convinced that he is a creature living apart from others. “Look here! The rest of you go about your mitzvah observance undisturbed. G-d protects you from constant assault by the yetzer hora. Proper avodas Hashem is therefore possible for you. It has no relevance to someone like me, who is set upon by the yetzer hora every time that I try to improve my lot. With the fire of an aggressive yetzer hora burning within me, my service of Hashem amounts to nothing.”
We tell him that had he been part of the generation of the Exodus, he would not have been redeemed. How different are you, we tell him, from those who lived back then? They had sunk to the forty-ninth level of tumah. Do you believe yourself worse than them?
Yet they were redeemed, but you would not have been. They succeeded because they never despaired, never lost hope. They always believed that there would be a redemption because they saw themselves as redeemable. Sin will not keep a Jew from his Creator. Despair will. Despair is your nemesis, not your yetzer hora.
His despair may be a function of his personality. It may also flow from a serious flaw in his thinking that is more of a problem than the shortcomings in his actions He may lack confidence in the specialness of the Jewish neshamah. Doing so, he effectively denies one of the principles of faith, the mystical power and resilience of the Jewish soul. He deserves to have his teeth blunted; effectively, he embraces heresy. A Jew is obligated to believe that Hashem chose us from all other peoples, and that He never abandons us. He continues to dwell amongst us in the midst of our impurity. This belief is crucial to any change for the better, to the possibility of redemption. Believing in it made the geulah possible for the generation that left Egypt; believing in it will be crucial for those privileged to witness the final redemption as well. Without it, our despairing friend could not possibly have been redeemed had he lived back then.
We can offer an alternative reading. Noam Elimelech taught that there is a spiritual World called “the collective of Israel.” This world is unblemished, because only individuals sin. The group, the larger entity remains without fault. It therefore serves as a refuge for people who have fallen short of their expectations.
The evil son “removes himself from the collective.” He asks, “Why do you perform the seder mitzvos in these large gatherings? Why do you band together? Would it not be more dignified, indeed more fulfilling for the individual to serve G-d in the privacy of his own surroundings and thoughts? Must I really have recourse to others for what I would prefer to do myself?”
You of all people, we tell him, would find that a dead-end. The best way for a sinner to extricate himself from his past is to join with the many. You can still find a place in that world of the collective, even if you have not built up your own.
Chassidim say, “Do not be an evildoer by yourself.”  If you are to be an evildoer, do not go it alone! Join with the collective; throw yourself into the group. In it, you can still find redemption.
The third son is simple, unencumbered. He presents no great enthusiasm or passion, nor any mockery and cynicism. Rather, he suffers from indifference. He is insensitive to, and uncaring about, the universe of kedushah.
What can we tell him that will make a difference? He is dead to the message. (Tam, or simple, is the reversal of the Hebrew letters for Mes, dead.) We can only offer this: “Hashem took us out with a Strong Hand.”  You must do the same. You must rouse yourself from your torpor, shake off the lethargy. Only through your own strong hand can you push yourself out of your numb resignation, and awaken forces of the soul that may be dormant, but are surely there.
The fourth son is closed off. We see nothing entering, nothing leaving. His heart is closed, his mind is sealed. His entire essence, really, is shut off to any change or inspiration. He reacts to nothing, and cannot even formulate a question.
We have no easy remedy for his difficult state. But we do have a collective memory. Chazal liken the generation of the Exodus to a fetus in a womb. In other words, we were also sealed off, covered and encapsulated. We had no plan. We did, however, have simple faith. We believed that G-d would make things better.
This simple faith is the best – the only thing – we can offer him. We tell him, “Because of this, Hashem performed for me when I left Egypt.” It worked for me. It will surely work for you. Push on; serve Hashem even in your current state. Somehow, it will work out.
There is, we discover, a common thread to the spiritual malaise of all the sons. None are beyond the pale. Each of them can use the holiday of Pesach to transcend his troubles. Even the evil son can put his evil behind, and become one of the enthusiastic participants.
Thus we tell him, “Had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.” There, in the days before we received the Torah, your despair would have marginalized you, left you behind. But we are not there any more. We have since received a Torah. The Torah writes off no one. The holiday of Pesach offers a protocol for change, a road back paved with opportunity for anyone who wants to travel it.
1. Based on Nesivos Shalom, Pesach, pgs. 253-255
2. Otzar Ha-Midrashim (Eisenstein) pg. 271. The idiomatic intent of the passage is “Do not be evil in your own eyes.”
3. Shemos 13:14
4. Shemos 13:8
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein and Torah.org