Wicked or Curious?

The Four Questions page from the Arthur Szyk’s 1935 Haggadah. Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Rebecca Anne Tullman

As we approach the celebration of Passover and the retelling of Exodus, we find advice in the Torah on how to respond to children when they ask about this foundational story of our people. Four types of questions and appropriate responses for each are offered by the Torah:

  • And it will come to pass when your children will say to you, “What is the meaning of this service to you ?” And you shall say, “It is a Passover offering to God…” (Exodus 12:26-27)
  • And you shall tell your child on that day saying, “It is because of this, that God did for me when I left Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8)
  • And it shall be when your child asks you on the morrow saying, “What is this?” And you shall say to him, “With a strong hand, God took us out of Egypt …” (Exodus13:14)
  • When your child asks you on the morrow saying, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that the God has commanded you?” And you shall say to your son, “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt and God took us out of Egypt with an outstretched arm…” (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)

In a great many of our Haggadot, the children who you should respond to in the above ways are referred to collectively as the four children, and assigned the descriptions of  “the wicked child, the one who does not know how to ask, the simple child, and the wise child.” What the Torah offers here is sound advice to both parents and educators – that different children (or learners of any age for that matter) need to be taught in ways that make sense for them. We give our learners the best chance to thoroughly absorb concepts and material when we provide information in the language, modality, and perspective that makes sense to each child. This important statement about best practices in teaching is echoed later in the Tanakh when we read: “Train a child according to his way; even when he/she grows old, he/she will not turn away from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

I am filled with a sense of wonder when I think about how much our ancestors understood about human nature and teaching and learning thousands of years ago. However, the sage advice of our bible sours for me when it is repeated in the Haggadah with labels for each child. The “wise” child is not more wise than average children because she wants details about laws and statutes. She may be interested in this particular topic and want to dive deeper, or it may be that thinking about rules and structures helps her to organize information in her mind. The “simple child” is labeled so because he asks a simple question, but when information is new to us or our vocabulary in a content area is lacking, we only have simple questions to ask. The question is indeed simple, but we cannot infer that the asker is simple as well. But it is the “wicked” label that bothers me the most. This child asks “what does this mean to you?” and for this is labeled as wicked. As far as I can tell, many versions of the Haggadah come to this conclusion because the child says “to you,” thereby separating himself. But a child asking what something means to you is expressing curiosity, not necessarily separating himself. And if he IS separating himself, if he is unable to find meaning for himself, then he is disengaged – not wicked. This child presents a compelling opportunity for parents and teachers as he signals his lack of engagement -in a way that demonstrates curiosity- thus providing us with the chance to engage him, to train him according to his way.

For our learners and community members of all ages and stages, let us look to the example of Torah, and respond to each individual as befits their needs, interests, abilities, and learning styles, without labels or judgement.

Rebecca Tullman is the Director of Education and Youth Services at Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, GA. She holds a Master’s Degree in Education from American Jewish University.