Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle – Passover Supplement.
The more usual sacred or mystical numbers are three, seven and ten. The number four, too, has profound psychological and hence mystical associations. The mind of primitive man came attuned to this number through his observation of how it occurred in nature; in the four seasons of the year, the four directions of north, south, east and west, and in the animals with their four legs.
The houses and compounds in which early man lived were square or oblong in shape as were the windows and the simple furniture such as chairs and tables. The number four must have appeared to have been written-in, as it were, into the very fabric of the universe like the number ten in the fingers of the human hand.
With regard to Pesach, especially, the number four is given prominence. There are the four hundred years of Egyptian bondage; the four expressions of redemption in the Exodus narrative; the four cups of wine at the seder; the four questions; and, of course, the four letters which make up the Tetragrammaton.
Naturally, then, the four sons fit neatly into the pattern. There is even a Kabalistic statement to the effect that the four sons correspond to the four legs of the heavenly chariot seen by the prophet Ezekiel. This probably means that all four sons contribute in some measure to the support and strengthening of the holy, even the wicked son, if only because of the resistance his remarks arouse.
Of the four sons, the Jewish mystics appear to have been particularly fascinated by the one who does not know how to ask. They see him not as a mere youth but as a type of mystical adept whose response to the unfathomable is to confront it in silent awe.
David is said to be the son who does not know how to ask when he declares in the Psalms: “Thou makest me to know the path of life.” This expresses his total lack of comprehension so that from, his side there cannot even be a question, and God alone must take the initiative in making known to him the path of life.
It is no accident that this verse is frequently recited at a funeral or a shiva. It is as if those who have lost a dear one are struck dumb by the enormity of it all so that they cannot even bring themselves to ask why it should have happened. They can only throw themselves on God who, they affirm, will make known to them the path of life and how this can come out of what seems to human eyes to be the finality of death.
On this theme Rabbi Chayim Halberstam, the Zanser Rebbe, interpreted the words at pesach lo (“you open up the discussion for him”), which the Hagada uses for the father’s response to the son who does not know how to ask. Rabbi Chayim noted that the word at consists of the first letter of the alphabet—alef—and the last—tav. All the heavenly gates, from the highest to the lowest, open up to the man who knows that he does not know. When man is powerless to understand and has the wisdom to appreciate that this must be his situation the divine grace flows from on high to provide him with spiritual illumination.
In other words, the wicked son represents the element of sheer perversity, the desire to be excluded from the whole exercise of reflecting on God’s marvelous deliverances. His remedy is to be brought back into the fold, to become again a lively participant in the divine quest.
The wise son represents the ambition to know all that can legitimately be known and this need has to be satisfied. The simple son represents the attitude of unquestioning faith, of unsophisticated surrender to the will of God.
Highest of all is the son who does not know how to ask, representing that stage of worship in which the worshipper is so overwhelmed by the divine that even the quest for knowledge becomes an intrusion and God is adored in a silence more eloquent than words and thought.