This is a version of the D'var Torah I gave on Saturday, April 4, 2020, Shabbat Hagadol 5780.
According to the Passover Haggadah:
“The Torah speaks of four children. One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple, and one does not know to ask. Echad chacham, v’echad rasha, v’echad tam, v’echad she-aino yod’ea lish’ol.”
I have been thinking about these four children as responses to COVID-19. The smart responses and the evil ones, the simplistic and the – what -- oblivious or simply dumbstruck. I think each of these children has two sides, a side that needs support and encouragement and a side that needs teaching and guidance.
The wise one asks: What are the specifics about this disease? What do we know about how it spreads? What steps have been effective in different countries or regions? What do the models say? Who are the chachamim, the experts and Sages, to whom we should be listening?
In the Seder, the wise child asks: Mah ha-eydot v’hachukim v’hamishpatim asher tsiva Adonai etchem? “What are the testimonies, the rules that you don’t ask questions about, and the rules whose reasoning is important, that Adonai has commanded?” What is based on well-attested research, what are the things we don’t have time to debate but simply all have to do, what are rules that will work better if we take the time to understand them?
That’s the chacham of today, and the more of this we have the better we will all be. We need to encourage more people to be both well-informed and trusting of the scientific policymakers and the officials who are listening to them.
The Haggadah says that you should give the chacham detailed answers, of the specifics of the laws of Passover. So too today, the chacham needs ways to be practical – things to know and to teach others, concrete ways of giving tzedakah and doing for people who are vulnerable in all the ways that people are at risk now.
Of course, it’s also hard to be chacham right now. The chacham is the one who knows more than most what there is to be frightened of, who has the burden of seeing the danger in a trip to the store or a walk in the park. Who worries about people who have no option of staying home to work safely, who has no one to go shopping for them. These aren’t reasons to avoid being the chacham. But the chacham needs support – so as not to become overwhelmed or burn out. So as not to become so worried or sad that it’s impossible to smile or laugh or share a good moment with someone.
The wicked one asks: What is the burden that you have all taken on? In most years at the Seder, we often call this rasha not wicked but rebellious, in a sort-of good way, and we have more understanding than the rabbis of old seemed to. We say it’s just a phase, or it’s a teenager, or there is value in critical thinking, and maybe we even admire the rasha for not going along with the crowd.
But today we can say that there are wicked people, and we see them all over. They are standing too close to other people in the supermarket. They are coughing without covering. Online they are suggesting that only older people will die and we shouldn’t all have to lose our jobs because of that. Or that this is all a hoax or a liberal conspiracy.
And the Haggadah’s answer to the rasha is no answer today – fling it in his teeth, fine, if that’s your position you will not be redeemed. That’s not going to work now. The hazard of their wickedness isn’t just to them but to the rest of us through them.
So we are in the position of what Judaism calls the mitzvah of tochacha, confronting and trying to correct someone’s behavior. Which means taking a stand in public and telling strangers to step back or get out of here, as evenly but firmly as we can.
And to anyone who expresses views that can make this all worse, we have respond calmly also – in the way we repeat the new mantras of safety, by combating the bad reads with good ones that aren’t angry or ideological but sensible and factual.
I think too that today’s rasha needs understanding. There may be terrible fear at the heart of this: a fear of confronting what is really happening, or of having one’s worldview suddenly challenged or possibly irrelevant to the day. The rasha needs comforting.
And the online rasha who says it’s really not that serious a disease has long ago become deeply mistrustful of knowledge and of political authority.
Now is a time for us to show that knowledge works. People who value knowledge are creative and faithful and tireless and compassionate. Now is a time for us to key in on figures in authority who are relentless about human life; who show what it means to take responsibility and be advised by those who know more; who admit error and move on because they are committed to the people who chose them. We have to notice all these people now, and talk about them to people we know who are stuck in rasha mode.
The simple one says: What is this? This tam is the one who doesn’t keep close tabs on the news; who isn’t intentionally going out unnecessarily or willfully misbehaving but is making do with a minimum of information and precautions while out.
Or maybe the tam is the one of few words. Cooped up in the house with everyone, this is the one who doesn’t really want to fill the time together with talk, or doesn’t want to talk about feelings or worries.
And the Haggadah says: Open up to this one: “With a strong hand did Adonai bring us out of Mitzrayim.” Don’t overwhelm with more than they want to talk about. Start with the big picture: We are in a tough time and we are fortunate that there are strong powers out there doing their best to keep us safe and guide us through. And I will be here for you, to answer whatever question you have, about what’s going on or about what this is like. To talk to you when you do want to talk.
There is one who does not know what to ask or how to ask – she-aino yode’a lish’ol. The Hebrew could mean: One who does not know how to ask anything at all, or one who doesn’t know that it’s okay just to have questions, or one who doesn’t know which of the many questions would be appropriate to ask at this moment.
I think about our actual children, who will have this interlude in their formative years that will shape them, or who are aware enough that this time will be something shadowing their adult lives. They must be so full of questions, and it’s hard to have answers we don’t know what the next few days are going to be like.
And I think of the teaching of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who taught that the one who doesn’t know how to ask is the most profound of the four children: For who even knows what questions are worth asking?
What do we ask at a time like this? Sure, there’s a too-familiar script of questions from catastrophes past: Why is this happening, why did this person die, why did I get sick or why did I not, what kind of God is this?
Now on top of that: What will it be like to hug someone again, to be with a boyfriend or girlfriend, to put out a bowl of potato chips at a party? How do you talk if the only options are to be focused through a phone or screen, or not to talk at all? We used to sit around in a room, talk for bit, wander and in out, talk a bit and stop and talk again. If we spend two months seeing people only on screens except for those in our house plus the quickly cashier at the supermarket, what will be the impact on our friendships? On society?
What will be the effect of this big unplanned experiment in distance and togetherness? Will we find ways to be more close and more responsible for people we don’t usually see, but who are tied to us, who affect us, who feed and care for us? What will we discover that we cherish about our face-to-face, local communities?
You can go crazy thinking of questions. I am, a bit. Or you can be fascinated by them. I am, actually, a lot.
It’s appropriate to take time not to ask anything, just to deal with what is in front of you. It’s okay to be overwhelmed by so many questions that you just can’t ask anything.
It’s also important that we move from not-asking, or not-being able to ask, or knowing what to ask first.
The Haggadah says: When you don’t know what question to ask or answer, tell the story, and say: “This is something that Adonai did for me when I went out of Mitzrayim.” We’re going to have stories to tell. Don’t forget to put yourself at the center. How it affects you. How you are acting. Your part of the story matters no matter what. You are the person who deserves to be taken care of while we are in this Mitzrayim, and you are the person who deserves to be brought out from this Mitzrayim.
We are all children now, in the midst of a society of children who are wise and wicked, simple and overwhelmed. We will do our best to understand this story while we are in it, and to teach each child of any age according to the need they have right now. So that as many of us can come out as possible, as we once came out Mitzrayim.
May you all be well, Shabbat Shalom, and even in these times a Zissen (sweet) Pesach.