Towards the end of Parashat Vaetchanan (6:20), Moshe foresees the time when, after Benei Yisrael settle the Land of Israel, the children will turn to their parents and ask, “What are the testimonies, statutes and laws which the Lord our God has commanded you?” Moshe instructs the parents to explain to their children the history of Benei Yisrael, how our nation were downtrodden, oppressed slaves in Egypt until God miraculously rescued them, taking them as His servants and giving us laws which we are duty-bound to obey.
This verse is famously cited by the Haggadah as expressing the question posed by the “wise son,” the son who sincerely inquiries about the “testimonies, statutes and laws,” passionate in his quest for knowledge and understanding. The Haggadah instructs parents to indulge this child’s ambition and satisfy his craving for knowledge, explaining to him all the laws of the Pesach seder down to the most minute details. The question of this “wise son” is presented in contrast to the question foreseen by the Torah earlier, in Sefer Shemot (12:25) – “What is this service to you?” – which the Haggadah attributes to the “wicked son.” Whereas the “wise son” displays genuine curiosity and interest in knowing about the Torah’s laws observed by his parents, the wicked son dismisses them, asking disparagingly, “What is this service to you?”
Many commentators raised the question as to the basis for the Haggadah’s interpretation of these two verses. Seemingly, as the questioners in both verses refer to God’s laws in second person, they implicitly exclude themselves from the community of observers. Just as the “wicked son” asks, “What is this service to you?” the “wise son” similarly asks, “What are the…laws which the Lord…has commanded you?” Why, then, does the Haggadah consider the questioner in Sefer Shemot “wicked,” because “he removed himself from the community” (“hotzi et atzmo min ha-kelal”), whereas the questioner here in Parashat Vaetchanan is deemed “wise”?
The Tosafists (Rabboteinu Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot, Parashat Vaetchanan) offer a simple answer, noting that the use of the second person form by the questioner in Parashat Vaetchanan is not exclusionary, but rather factual. This question is being asked by a child of parents who first heard God’s laws transmitted from Moshe Rabbeinu. This child did not receive the commandments directly from God as the parents’ generation did, and thus he describes the laws as those which God “commanded you,” since he heard the command from his parents, and not from God as his parents did (through Moshe, the Almighty’s mouthpiece, as it were). This child does not deny the relevance of the commands to his generation, and to the contrary, he expresses interest in learning about them so he could practice them, even though they were transmitted to him only indirectly, through his parents. This is unlike the son in Sefer Shemot, who cynically asks, “What is this service to you?” indicating his denial of the mitzvot’s significance for him.
In essence, the Tosafists here distinguish between acknowledging a more distant relationship with God, and excluding oneself from this relationship. The “wise son” is “wise” in that he eagerly seeks to learn about and observe the mitzvot even as he recognizes that he will never be as close to their source – Matan Torah and the prophecy of Moshe – as his parents’ generation. Although he is, and will always be, a step more distant from Sinai than his parents, he nevertheless understands the relevance of the covenant of Sinai to his life. And precisely herein lies the difference between the “wise son” and the “wicked son.” The latter views the Torah as relevant to and binding upon only those who received its laws firsthand, learning them directly from Moshe Rabbeinu. But for the second generation, who did not have this experience, the Torah has no significance. For the “wise son,” by contrast, the relative indirectness of transmission has no bearing upon the Torah’s relevance. He understands that all generations are equally bound by the Torah’s laws, no matter how distant they are from Sinai and Moshe Rabbeinu.
If so, then the depictions of the “wise son” and the “wicked son” remind us that the Torah remains forever relevant and binding under all circumstances, even if we feel distant and incapable of forging the same kind of spiritual personality that others achieve. Even assuming it is true that modern-day realities make it impossible to live with the type of deep spiritual awareness with which Jews of prior generations lived, this in no way absolves us from striving for excellence. The “wise son” teaches us that although the Torah’s laws were commanded “to you” – to prior generations, whose relationship to God and His laws was far closer and more direct than that which subsequent generations can achieve – nevertheless, we must endeavor to learn, study and observe them to the very best of our ability. The Torah’s laws are eternally relevant, regardless of our circumstances and realities.