Pesach - Pay Attention, Class is in Session
When the Mitteler Rebbe, Rav Dov Ber (son of the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch), was a young married man, he lived on the ground floor of his parent’s home. His father and the rest of the family occupied the second floor of the house.
One night, while the Mitteler Rebbe was in the midst of an intense learning session, his youngest child fell out of his crib. Totally engrossed in his studies, Rav Dov Ber did not hear the cries of his infant child. The Alter Rebbe was also in the middle of learning up on the second floor but he did hear the infant crying. The Alter Rebbe went downstairs, picked the child up, and lovingly rocked the child back to sleep. Rav Dov Ber was totally unaware of the entire episode.
Later, the Alter Rebbe admonished his son: “No matter how lofty your involvements, you must never fail to hear the cry of a child.”
In the 1950’s the Lubavitcher Rebbe heard the cries of a child that the generation was not attuned to. We are all familiar with the four sons of the Haggada. One is wise, one is wicked, one is simple and one is so ignorant he does not even know how to ask a question. The Haggada gives us a brilliant prescription of how we are to deal with each child. Each of the four sons has their own cry and we are sensitized as to how they need to be educated and raised. But the Rebbe taught that there is a fifth son whose pain is so deep that he did not even come to the Seder. Perhaps he did not come to the Seder because he did not get an invitation; maybe there was no one around to invite him. Why has the fifth son been written off by our community? Why are we satisfied to teach those Jews that are involved? The wicked son needs our love and attention but at least he made it to the seder! The Rebbe exhorted his chasidim to travel the globe and find the fifth son. Invite him to participate in the Seder that is his rightful heritage. Ease his pain. And they did. Even today, years after the Rebbe’s passing, Lubavitcher shluchim and shluchos can be found all over the world looking for that fifth son. Even the most anti Chabad misnagdim will begrudgingly admit that they respect and admire the sacrifice of those who are spending their lives searching for our fifth son.
Today the concept of a fifth son is no longer a revolution. Baruch Hashem we have wonderful kiruv organizations that employ countless resources to let our brothers and sisters know that we are here for them. But is there more to this fifth son than meets the eye? Is he not at the seder simply because he didn’t receive an invitation? Were that the case the solution ought to be quite simple. Invite him! In today’s day and age getting the word out about an event is far from difficult. Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook are amazing tools to let people know that they are invited to join your seder. And perhaps if that is all we did there are some that would join us. If we are being honest, most of the fifth sons would just keep on scrolling. Why? If the problem is that they have no place to go and now they know there is a place, shouldn’t that be the end of the story?
In truth the fifth son has a lot to say about Judaism. And we would be wise to listen and learn from him. In Judaism a Rebbe/Talmid relationship is symbiotic. The Rebbe is both a teacher and a student. The talmid is both a learner and a teacher. Chazal teach us, “I learned much from my Rabbeim, more from my friends and most from my talmidim.” A Rebbe who is only there to teach their talmidim or talmidot, who doesn’t walk into his own classroom as excited to learn as he is to teach, is missing a valuable opportunity. The Rebbe who is excited to teach but not to learn sees his student as inferior. The student is someone who needs the Rebbe and thank God the Rebbe is here to teach. Chazal teach us that the Rebbe will learn most from his talmidim. The Rebbe may have more information than the student and a greater mastery over the material but the student has an opinion too and respecting that opinion is part of being a great Rebbe. Not only will this create a safe space for the talmid to learn but the Rebbe’s life will be enriched by the talmid as well. Talmidim can offer fresh insights that the Rebbe never considered. As my Rebbe, Rav Yehuda Parnes shlit”a would often quip in shiur when a talmid made a valuable contribution to the shiur, “there is no Beis Medrash that doesn’t produce a chiddush.” The fifth son is communicating to us with his absence. Can we hear his arguments, his frustrations, his issues with the system? Because when we do listen carefully to what the fifth son is teaching us we will realize that he is right.
Today’s fifth son rejects Judaism because what he experiences of Judaism can’t be Judaism. The fifth son demands an authentic Judaism or he won’t participate at all. Truth ought to be self-evident. The truth of Judaism is as simple as basic mathematics. Present the fifth son with the truth and he will happily engage. But what he knows about Judaism can’t be true.
Perhaps our fifth son is a child who was raised to be obedient. It seemed to him that his parents were more concerned with his performance of Mitzvos than they were for him. The love he received was conditional. His other siblings dutifully davened and learned and were showered with accolades but when he skipped davening the punishments were swift and harsh. “My parents were only concerned that my lack of observance might impact future shidduchim and their standing in the neighborhood.” The fifth son rejects a Judaism that cares more about the Mitzvos than the person performing them. And he is right.
Perhaps our fifth son was taught that he is less Jewish because of the way he serves Hashem or his lack of observance. The fifth son senses that this can’t be true. Correctly he intuits the words of Chazal that say, “Even though he sinned he remains a Jew.” The fifth son argues, “Who are you to tell me I am less Jewish? Just as a child remains a child despite his sometimes contentious relationship with his parents so too should I not be considered a Jew despite my many flaws? Why are you so disrespectful of the way I have been taught to serve God? Doesn’t Godliness demand humility? This competition cannot be what God wants. If this holier than thou attitude is what Judaism is all about I have no interest.” The fifth son rejects an arrogant Judaism where his status as a Jew is dependent on the fashion in which he serves Hashem. And he is right.
Perhaps our fifth son is a child who was taught that Judaism does not allow you to ask questions. That faith is blind. That asking why we do what we do is a lack of emunah. The fifth son senses that a true religion would demand thoughtfulness. He does not necessarily think that faith is foolish but should it not be accompanied by curiosity, inquisitiveness, debate and imagination? When asked to choose, the fifth son correctly chooses contemplation over belief. The fifth son rejects a Judaism that teaches that faith and intelligence are mutually exclusive. And he is right.
Perhaps our fifth son sees Judaism as limited in scope. It has nothing to do with the real world. Religion ought to be all encompassing. It should have a global message. It should have as much to say about politics and economics and science and ethics as it does about prayer and study and performance of Mitzvos. Why would God give us a mission that is limited to the Jewish community? He intuits that a true religion would impact every facet of our life and ought to be as applicable in the business world as it is in the Beis Medrash. The fifth son rejects a Judaism that is irrelevant to the world in which he lives. And he is right.
Perhaps our fifth son is in pain. He has suffered in his life. He has seen the suffering of others. He believes in the goodness of people. He believes in the righteousness of God Almighty. But how to reconcile these two beliefs when he loses loved ones in his life? When he himself has been the victim of unwanted advances from people who claim to be role models? The answers he has been given infuriate him. He rolls his eyes at the standard answer of, “We do not understand the ways of God.” He stands incredulous at the hubris of those who claim to be able to understand which aveira was the cause of personal and national calamities. Has anyone taken the time to sit with him and share his pain? Have we, his community, shown him that his question is predicated on the belief that God is just and people are good? For our fifth son the answer is no. The fifth son has rejected a Judaism that embraces injustice and lacks basic empathy. And he is right.
The list of issues that the fifth son has with our community is far more vast than this article could ever hope to encompass. These examples only represent a fraction of the arguments that dedicated mechanchim and mechanchot will hear over the course of a career. Fifth sons aren’t born this way. They are the spiritually sensitive children, often our most spiritually sensitive children, who refuse to accept that this version of Judaism is true. If we don’t listen to these children, if we don’t learn from them, we validate the reasons that they left to begin with. If we don’t study and absorb the lessons that our fifth son teachers are imparting to us we are in danger of continuing to produce fifth sons. This Pesach we must extend the invitation of “All those who are hungry, let them come and eat. Whoever is in need, let him come and partake of the Passover.” to our fifth son. After all, he may just be our greatest teacher. Now pay attention, class is in session.