Tonight Jews celebrate the Passover holiday by having an ancient Greek drinking party. The ancient Greek drinking party, as we know from Plato’s “Symposium” (from the ancient Greek word “symposium” which means drinking party from drink plus together) required a topic of conversation that each participant would address in turn. In Plato’s symposium the topic was “What is love?” which is an excellent topic if you are drinking with your friends and some of you are in love with others of you. For the seder the topic is “What is freedom?” which is an excellent topic for a party with parents and children, since children are unfree in relation to their parents but we are all hoping are on a journey to freedom.
The children are more-or-less unfree and their parents are asking them to discuss freedom. This will naturally result in a mixed range of reactions — ambivalence and sarcasm (are you kidding me?) spring to mind. The Haggadah (the guidebook to the seder) singles out four, assigning each one to a “son” — although today it would include daughters (pictured above).
The four responses enumerated in the hagadah are:
1)Asking for an explanation
2)Asking “What does this have to do with you?”
3)Asking “What is this?”
The author of the haggadah has (or claims to have in order to be provoking) strong feelings about these responses, labeling the first “wise” and the second “wicked” and saying the older generation should be happy about response (1) and hurt and angry about response (2). But if we think a little more deeply we can think about situations in which each of the four responses is appropriate.
A water crisis in Syria leads to a civil war and we are having a feast while the refugees from the crisis starve.
THE “WISE” SON
Why did this happen? A water crisis. Why are there water crises? How can they be prevented?
THE “WICKED” SON
What does this have to do with you? How can you sit there and lecture me on freedom when people are not free? Are you doing all that you can? If you’re not doing all that you can, how can you expect me to do so?
THE “SIMPLE” SON
What is this? People are killing each other in a civil war. What is a war? What is a “civil war”? What is a nation anyway? What is this life of ours where this happens?
THE SON WHO IS “UNABLE TO ASK”
Maybe freedom means the freedom to ask the hard, intellectually challenging questions, to ask the questions that challenge the authority and integrity of those in charge, to ask questions which are so hard because they seem so easy, and to be silent — with shock or awe or joy, or wonder.