The Fifth Son at the Seder

An essential element to Maggid, the main storytelling part of the Seder, is the Four Sons, who are supposed to typify each kind of Jewish child, or at least the types of approaches a child could take to understanding the Passover story — for the main purpose of the Seder is to recount the story to others, particularly children.

From the Wise Son, who wants to know all the details of Passover observances, to the Wicked Son, who challenges and mocks them, to the Simple Son, who just asks “What’s this all about?, to the non-reaction of the Son Who Does Not Know How to Ask,”  who is present, but unengaged, it seems that these responses to the Seder run the gamut.

HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, and other sages have taught that there is a Fifth Son, the son who isn’t even at the Seder.  Sadly, especially given widespread assimilation of the modern age, there are a great number of Jews who don’t even know when it is Passover.

I was speaking with one such individual last week.  Because we are living in Israel and people are on vacation, Passover sales abound, and pizza shops are busier than usual, it’s difficult to be completely oblivious to the fact that it is Passover season.  But this individual wasn’t sure when the holiday began, and I wasn’t sure that he would be attending a Seder.

What’s remarkable is that he is a highly educated person and an ardent Zionist, having made aliyah from the United States and proudly sending his children to serve in the army.  Furthermore, as a scholar, he has defended Israel in numerous publications.

I find it difficult to understand how Zionism and a connection to the Jewish people can run full speed ahead without any religious fuel.  I recall that during my stay in an absorption center for new immigrants in Ra’anana, about a year before becoming observant, I felt a deep connection to the Jewish people around me and to Israel.  It was a natural outgrowth of growing up in a household that regularly discussed Israel – it’s presentation in the media, standing in the international arena, local Israel activism events, etc.  But when I got there, I was really annoyed that practically everything was closed on Saturday.  In other words, there were limited Jewish aspects that I truly enjoyed.  I had assessed the politics but not the religion.

Eventually, I believe that it was the experience of living in Israel and the people that I met here that prompted me to explore Judaism more carefully.  I can’t figure out where the wherewithal would come from to go through with making aliyah, if not for some religious conviction.  How can one be so connected to the idea of a Jewish State without fully examining what it means to be Jewish?

To be sure, there are plenty of Jews who are well acquainted with Jewish culture and all of its laws and have chosen to reject them.  But it seems to me that most of the Jews who constitute the “Fifth Son” prototype don’t show at the Seder out of ignorance rather than out of an educated decision.

It’s well-known that most of the founding fathers and mothers of the State of Israel were secular.  Yet they probably knew more Torah than I and plenty of other observant Jews do. It is no surprise to me that increasing numbers of commanders and high-level officers in the Israeli army are observant.  As the Kibbutz movement fades, Zionist passion seems to lay most concentrated among kipah srugah “settlers”.

During the day today, I was reading some of Eim HaBanim Semeichah, in which Rabbi Teichtal explains that even though they did so without observing the Torah’s laws, the settlement of Israel was a tremendous mitzvah more significant than the intentions of the prayers of the righteous.  One of the ways that he goes on to elaborate on the return from exile is to relate the exodus from Egypt to today’s exile, examining the verse “Then, the Lord your God will return your captivity” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 30:3).  Rashi’s commentary says: “The day of the ingathering of the exiles is so awesome and difficult that God Himself, with His own hands, must actually seize each man from his place, as it says, ‘And you will be gathered up one by one, O Children of Israel (Yeshayah 27:12)’.

In order to understand Rashi, Rav Teichtal brings one idea from Ohev Yisrael, by the Rebbe of Apt, who brings Midrash in which he describes three opinions by three different rabbis about how Israel was immersed in Egypt before the exodus.  One rabbi compares the Israelites to a bird in the hands of a hunter.  This refers to the righteous, who had no connection to the Egyptians whatsoever and would readily fly away as soon as they were released from its grasp.  Another rabbi compares the Jews to a fetus with an animal’s innards.  He is typifies an ordinary Jew, who had a connection to Egypt, but not to a great extent, just as a fetus is attached to its mother but is a separate human being.  The last opinion compares the Israelites to gold in a furnace.  This refers to the Jews who were completely intertwined into Egyptian culture, just as gold in a furnace becomes mixed with impurities in a way that they cannot be separated.

“But, the Holy One Blessed be He brought even them out of Egypt.”  Despite their total adherence to the ways of the depraved culture around them, God grabbed each one by the hand to bring them out.

While we are to recall “the day when you came out of the land of Egypt, all the days of your life,” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:3), on Passover we are specifically asked to feel as if we were slaves in Egypt delivered to freedom.

According to Midrash though, four-fifth of the Jews were so assimilated that they stayed behind in Egypt.  How are we to reconcile this?  I think that this shows that despite God’s hidden and revealed miracles, we are still expected to act upon them and to help out our fellow Jew.  As we imagine ourselves leaving Egypt, we must ask, would we have actually left?  Or would we have been too scared and stayed behind?  And if we were bold and faithful enough to leave, would we take the time and care to take others out with us?

At the Seder table today, we should ask ourselves in preparations how we can be following God’s commandments in a way that we are not so wrapped up in our own accomplishment that we do not extend a hand to our fellow Jew, by donations of ma’ot chitim and by inviting him or her to our table.  No matter how assimilated a Jew is, God desired that he/she too would leave Egypt.  What we might be seeing in another Jew is the impurities, the ways in which they stray from the Torah or openly violate its commands.  But if we are keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways (Devarim / Deuteronomy 28:9), then just as God sought to deliver the assimilated Jews from Egypt, we too must strive to include the “Fifth Son”.

Chag Sameach!


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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