Rachel was, by turns, enthusiastic, grumpy, silly, listless, sunny and full of pre-teen attitude. As the result of her childhood stroke, she used a bright pink wheelchair to get around, and she communicated through hand gestures, vocalizations, facial expressions and a communication device called a Dynavox (also pink). Rachel’s love of Judaism was unmistakable, but her parents told us they had always hated the Four Children in the Hagaddah.
Rachel screeched with joy whenever she saw our miniature classroom Torah. During a lesson on Tzedakah, Rachel shook a tzedakah box with such enthusiasm that the top popped off and coins scattered to all corners of the classroom. And when it was time for Rachel to lead prayers during our classroom service, her face puckered in concentration as she tapped the buttons on her Dynavox. In spring of 2012, Rachel’s years of Jewish education culminated in the celebration of her Bat Mitzvah. With her grandfather’s tallit around her shoulders and her own silk tallit draped over the back of her wheelchair, Rachel carried a small Torah and led the congregation in the prayers using her Dynavox.
The glow of this event faded a few months later when we received the news of Rachel's death.
Was she a simple child?
Less than a year later, her family contacted Gateways. For this first Passover without their daughter they wanted to do something to challenge the Four Children text, and they wanted our help. This request opened my eyes. I am not a parent, but as I looked over the Four Children again I realized how painful it could be for a parent to read.
Imagine the parent of a child who acts out in public may wince as he reads about the wicked son, thinking that’s how their child appears in the eyes of strangers. Or the parent of a child who is still struggles to read as a teenager may ache inside as she reads the passage about the simple son. A child who throws her art supplies on the floor, as Rachel did from time to time, isn’t wicked. Maybe she’s tired or hungry but can’t articulate how she’s feeling. Perhaps she doesn’t like art, but doesn’t know how to appropriately ask for a break instead.
As a special educator, I have learned not to see children so simply. Descriptions of the children of "wise" or "wicked" imply that these are inborn, unchangeable characteristics. In crafting a new Four Children for the Gateways Haggadah, I thought about how a child might act that would cause a person to judge them as being wise, wicked or simple.
I chose to describe the Four Children by their feelings about having a seder and how they express those feelings. Instead of being wise, wicked, simple, and unable to ask a question, my Four Children are excited, upset, curious and overwhelmed. These feelings are named without judgement. But feelings, unlike seemingly static personality characteristics, can be talked about, managed, and changed.
What Rachel's parents craved was a Four Children that understood that children. They have feelings that need to be respected, and that a child’s behavior is a way of communicating the way he or she feels.
From the outside, it can be easy to judge a child like Rachel by the way she looks or how she acts. But if you take a closer look, with kindness and understanding, you will be able to see a child with opinions, feelings, and emotional needs. A person who saw that Rachel was unable to speak might have concluded that she had nothing to say. But if you looked a little closer, you would see that Rachel had many things she wanted to communicate, and that she had a lot to teach us.
Rebecca Redner is the author of the Gateways Haggadah and the Program Associate for Gateways Jewish Education Programs.