The Intelligent Divorce

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A Passover Story: Four Sons & Five Characters

Don't underestimate doubt as a building block for faith.

It may have happened some thirty five hundred years ago, but every year Jewish families come together for the Passover Seder to learn yet again about the Exodus from Egypt. .

It works because of our shared participation in reading an ancient text called the Haggadah; a book that celebrates freedom and our relationship to God.

It’s great theater.  

The Four Sons: The Haggadah tells of four sons: first, the wise son—the Chacham, then the evil/rebellious son—the Rasha, followed by the simple son—the Tam, and finally, the son who doesn’t know to ask.

The scene of these four sons plays a pivotal role in the seder. We are moved by what they ask and by who they are. Given what I know about family dynamics, three details have struck me throughout the years, and by looking more closely at that which piqued my interest, I learned a good lesson for the soul.

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  • The first of these curious details is that the Rasha is at the table in the first place. After all, he's rude and contentious, to say the least. Why be generous to someone who makes things difficult for you?
  • The second surprise is that, given his oppositional disposition, the Rasha is second in line, after the Chacham, to ask a question. Why the place of honor?
  • And third, I am struck by the realization that there are actually five characters in this script—not just four. And, the fifth character is probably the most important one.


Let’s take a look at the first two points, both of which deal directly with the Rasha.

The Rasha is translated in various ways, but the evil, or bad, son is fairly accurate. Other translations have him as the wayward son or the rebellious son. So, why should the Rasha be second in line to the Chacham—the wise son—to ask a question? After all, it’s not as if there’s a shortage of characters. The simple son and the son who doesn’t know how to ask both follow. Why the place of honor?

To answer this question, I return to theater—here calling upon Sophocles, the ancient Greek playwright.

The Riddle of the Sphinx: Sophocles tells us about the riddle of the Sphinx.  “What creature wakes up on four legs, walks through the afternoon on two, and settles down in the evening on three?”  The answer is man himself. We are born crawling on "four legs." We get up and walk through most of our lives on two, and towards the end, we hobble on a cane, making three. The riddle’s answer speaks to the nature of the human condition—it’s our collective life story, so to speak.

The tale of the four sons mirrors Sophocles’ riddle, but this time teaching us not about man’s physical journey, but rather his spiritual one. Sure, we can look at the four sons individually, each one having a different approach to God. But, from a theatrical perspective, we can also view them as a unit. In this light, they represent four interrelated phases of spiritual development that are intrinsic to our humanity.

A Psychology of Spiritual Development: The son who doesn't know to ask is the person who is ignorant of the Divine role in saving the Israelites from slavery. Asking a question about spiritual matters is beyond him. This person may be an infant, a child, or an individual who is knows little of religious life—or an adult who has given up caring.  

The simple son—the Tam—is the committed, but simple Jew. He asks his father what needs to be done and his father tells him just as it is. From a developmental point of view, this is a sincere, but simple spirituality: “tell me what God wants, and I will comply.” The simple son represents the spirituality of a young person or an adult individual who tends toward a dependent posture in relation to authority. The Tam may be a “good” boy, but is he free? I think not.

The Chacham, the wise son—we will get to the Rasha—represents an advanced stage of spiritual development. In this stage, the Tam develops into a man—or woman—who has struggled with faith, has perhaps rejected or confronted part or all of his or her relationship to God, and has returned to freely embrace the tradition from a more mature point of view. The Chacham says, “I want to know what is required of me, in detail, because it’s of personal importance, and I already know why I should be doing this.” His heart is whole in acceptance of the Almighty, but in a more mature way than the simple son, the Tam.  He thinks, “I have been around the block and have asked many questions. I feel secure in my wish to embrace my God and His ways.”

The Spiritual Journey: The path from the Tam to the Chacham—from a simple to a more mature faith—passes through the Rasha. The Rasha is a form of differentiation. He is the son—the character in the play—who differentiates from the path of sincere faith by saying, in essence, “I’m not part of this—I require myself to assess whether this is for me or not.” Differentiation is a well known process in human development, common in teens, but important for adults as well. It’s the edge that helps us to mature. In spiritual development, differentiation is a critical component to a faith embraced freely—and not just by habit or necessity.

Think about it.  It’s powerfully useful to say “no” before embracing a mature “yes.”

So, each of the sons is a character that speaks to the dynamics of faith in all its vitality. The Rasha keeps us honest, just as the Tam and the son who doesn’t know to ask, have their roles at some point in our lives (when you don’t care or you just go along because that’s what you’re supposed to do).

Which Son Do You Identify With Today? Step back and now take a look at yourself. Note that as you engage your own faith, there are times that you’re the simple son; then you are touched by the Rasha, followed by periods of time as a Chacham, only to fall off into the son who forgets to ask, or doesn’t even think it’s important, only to find spirituality again. You can be pretty observant and just be going through the motions—or feel close to your source.

Faith is fluid and all of us move on this spectrum. Viva the religious life well lived!

Now, there’s a fifth character in our drama.

Character Number Five: It’s the father—the voice of the narrator as depicted by the Haggadah.

When dealing with the Rasha, someone at the Seder table is instructed to speak in the voice of the father. And like theater, it’s carefully scripted. The father—now in our voice—scolds his Rasha, letting it be known that had he been in Egypt, he would not have been saved.  

The father of the Haggadah is firm and sets limits. He says, in essence, “don't go too far with these self important ideas because they’ll sink you.” Yet, the Rasha is not escorted out of the house, excused from the table, or written out of the text. He may need to be corrected but he also needs to be there.

The power of this story lies not only in what the father says, but in how he acts. By encouraging questions that may not always yield the “right” answers, and by having everyone return to his table year after year, the father—our fifth character—holds the text, and indeed, the whole story, together.

The fifth character, the father, shows the value of the Rasha by giving him a hierarchical honor. The Chacham is most honored because he represents the ideal. But, the Rasha comes second, followed by his less impressive brothers. Here the narrator tells by showing and not by his words—a time honored literary device. The Rasha is important, perhaps respected, perhaps feared…and he carries power.  

Yet, the narrator also makes it clear that the Rasha’s path is ultimately dangerous. Differentiation serves its function in the dynamics of a religious soul; but left to himself—the Rasha’s lost. He needs his family and they need him. He hears of their faith, even as he doubts—and they hear of his doubts in the midst of their faith. It’s no accident that the Rasha comes after the more mature Chacham, both threatening the wise son’s mastery and fueling it at the same time.

Faith, after all, is not static. It can die if you try to force it.

Your Personal Haggadah: The Haggadah speaks to us personally. Their family is our family. So, we too need the Rasha in the text as much and we need him in ourselves, in order to embrace God as free men and women in this world—and not as uncritical children.  

It’s brilliant.

Every Passover the Jewish People are asked to freely accept the Torah and thank the Almighty for what He has generously done for us. As free men and women we must ask questions that keep our faith fresh and alive. Among its many gifts, this is a truth given to us, clearly and precisely, by the Haggadah; one of the greatest pieces of theater that’s ever been written.

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Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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