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Uneasy Lies the Teacher's Crown

There are many “fours” at the Passover table. There are the four cups of wine, the four questions and of course the four children.

The Haggadah recounts: “The Torah alludes to four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who does not know how to task.” Each asks a question. And each is answered with an explanation appropriate to their understanding.

I have often bristled at the description of the wicked child. This suggests that the child is beyond teaching, shaping and even saving, that the teacher’s role is inconsequential. Labeling any child, as wicked most especially or even simple, for that matter, implies that the teacher’s role is negligible. The wicked child’s character appears set in stone.

The Haggadah continues:
What does the wicked child say?
“What does this service mean to you?”
This child emphasizes “to you” and not himself or herself! Since the child excludes himself or herself from the community and rejects a major principle of faith, you should  “set that child’s teeth on edge” and say:
“It is because of this, that Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt.”
“Me” and not that one! Had that one been there, he or she would not have been redeemed.
The child is beyond saving! Was not every Israelite slave redeemed from Egypt? God made no distinctions about their wisdom or abilities. God did not ask if they believed or not.

Back to the classroom. How many math teachers have heard, “What is the point of learning how to do geometry?” Or English teachers bristled at the words, “Why do I have to read what Shakespeare wrote hundreds of years ago?” Or rabbis recoiled at the statements, “Why do I have to study Hebrew?” (Or, if you have been reading my ruminations for the past few weeks, learn about leprosy?)

While teachers might be tempted to castigate students who reject the very essence of what they are teaching, and what they have devoted their lives to, impatience, or in the case of the wicked child, anger, never succeeds in effectuating learning. And herein lies the import of the rabbis’ parable.

It is the teacher’s job to figure out how to teach. It is up to teachers to convey the message, regardless of a child’s ability or understanding. It is not that there are wicked children. It is instead that sometimes teachers, and rabbis, must be reminded that their sacred task is to impart learning. It is not meant to be easy. It is not meant to be quick.

Everyone who leaves the Seder table must not only depart with a belly full of matzah and macaroons, but a heart filled with the message of “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Or as I prefer to ask, “Why does this night still matter for us today, here and now?”

And just because wise children ask sophisticated questions such as, “What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws which Adonai our God has commanded you?” does not mean they really understand what Passover has to do with them. Reciting laws, memorizing formulas, quoting sonnets, and chanting verses are not true evidence of taking any learning to heart.

No test can measure that. No prayerbook can uncover that.

It begins in teachers’ hearts. It is sparked from their patience and love.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown!”