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Engaging the indifferent fifth son
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Engaging the indifferent fifth son

Passover — Exodus 33:12-34:26 and Numbers 28:19-28:25

Every seder, no matter how abbreviated, includes the Four Questions, the passage recited by a child to which the Maggid, the telling, the Haggadah’s account of the Exodus, is the response. Almost 2,000 years ago the Rabbis made the child’s questioning an element of primary importance in the Pesach ritual.

All the unusual features of the seder are specifically designed to pique the curiosity of the children so that they will ask questions and so that their parents will have the opportunity to tell the story of the Jewish people once again. In fact, the Four Questions learned by Jewish children at a very early age are taken almost verbatim from the Mishna, which says, if the child doesn’t ask his own questions spontaneously when he sees these unusual rituals, prompt him with these.

Whether the child asks his own questions or those printed in the Haggadah, children’s questions are essential to Pesach. In fact, on four separate occasions the Torah refers to the response the parent is to give “when your child will ask you.” These verses were then incorporated into the Haggadah in the passage about the four sons.

One son is wise and perceptive, and he inquires about the proper observance of Pesach. His parents lovingly explain all the details to him. The second son is extremely antagonistic. He looks down on the whole seder ritual and wants no part of it. He mocks and questions why we trouble ourselves with all this. His parents silence him with a sharp remark. The third son looks with wonder at the marvelous happenings around him and asks, “What is this?” His parents patiently and explain in simple terms the meaning of the celebration. The fourth son is too young to even know what to ask. His parents try to interest him and tell him what it is all about.

We know how to answer the four sons — even the rasha, the rebellious teenager. But a few years ago Rabbi Kass Abelson wrote a piece about the fifth son, the one we don’t know how to answer:

Who is the fifth son? Well, he is the one who sits at the seder table, observing all that is going on, but asking no questions. On the other hand, he neither mocks nor rejects. He is wise enough to understand, and old enough to ask, but he simply says, “Um hm,” or “That’s nice.” He sits through the seder ritual without too much noticeable impatience and leaves as soon as politeness permits. When asked, he will say, “It was all very pleasant, thank you.” But he is only being courteous, for he is really not interested.

What can you do with people who won’t ask questions, who won’t argue, who view 4,000 years of Jewish tradition with polite indifference? As Elie Wiesel taught us, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.

How do we turn our “fifth sons” from indifference to engagement? I believe our best chance is to keep trying until we find that topic that will move the fifth son to ask a question — any question. If Torah study doesn’t appeal to you, how about history? If you aren’t moved by prayer, what about music? Art, social action, cooking, philosophy, literature — everything from archaeology to zoology can be a link to Judaism — if only it prompts someone to begin asking questions, to step out of his indifference.

Pesach reminds us that we are a people of questions. Jews are even famous for answering questions with questions. And so I cannot believe that there is a Jew anywhere who is so indifferent that he cannot think of at least one tiny, little question. So ask!

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.

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