Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach
The term children does not necessarily mean young children. A good case can be made by I. B. Singer and Gil Meche for simple people. If God loves them, maybe we should too.
My Favorite Child at the Seder
I hope all of you had a good seder on Monday night and perhaps another enjoyable seder on Tuesday night. The number FOUR has a special place at the seder. There are four cups of wine, four questions, and four children. I want to tell you something about the four children – the wise, the contrary or evil, the simple, and the one who doesn’t ask questions. These four children are based on four verses in the Torah in which we are told to tell our children the meaning of Passover.
But the term “children” doesn’t necessarily mean young children. In medieval Jewish art, the four children are usually depicted as adults. The chacham is a Torah sage, the rasha a warrior. The tam is depicted as a peasant, and the sh’eino yodea lishol, the one who cannot ask, is depicted as a court jester. Look at our Baskin Haggadah, page 31. These are clearly adult faces.
The only one who is ever depicted as a child in early Haggadot is the fourth, and even then, like so much medieval art, he actually looks like an adult who is simply smaller than the other characters. It is only in the twentieth century that the practice arose of depicting the four children as minors. It is interesting that as we became more and more anxious about Jewish continuity, the four children became children.
Everyone makes the same joke every year, “Who’s going to be the wise child? Who’s going to be the wicked child? Who’s going to be the simple child, and who’s going to be the one who does not even know how to ask?” But let me ask, in all seriousness, which of the four sons or four children is your favorite?
Most people would probably vote for the chacham, the wise child. I must tell you that he’s not my favorite. There’s something a little bit too goody-goody about him. All he wants to know is, “Daddy, Mommy, what are all the laws of Pesach so that I can perform them?” I’m not sure, but I suspect he may be trying to butter up his father and please his mother by his question. I picture him as having a brown nose, so he is not my favorite among the four children.
Some people would actually vote for the rasha, the wicked child. You see, he’s independent. He has a mind of his own, and, therefore, we are somewhat tempted to identify with him and to admire him. What teenager does not want to break away from his family and stand on his own, like the wicked or contrary child does? Yet, I must tell you that he’s not my favorite either. How can you admire someone who shows off his independence at the cost of hurting his parents’ feelings, especially on seder night?
So what about the one who does not even know how to ask? I cannot say for sure, but my hunch is that he’s a little bit slow. He doesn’t know how to ask any questions, because he doesn’t really know what’s going on. I feel sorry for him, I’d do anything I could to help him, but I cannot say that he is my favorite child at the seder by any means.
So, who is my favorite among the four children? It’s the tam. Some translations call him the fool, but the usual translation is “the simple son.” I guess I like him because I have a soft spot in my heart for simple people. I appreciate them for their innocence, for their willingness to trust, for their naiveté, their eagerness to believe that the world is as it should be.
Our Jewish tradition says God loves and looks out for simple people. God protects those whom everyone else makes fun of. So if God loves the simpleton, then surely you and I should too.
Therefore, tonight I want to tell you about two of my favorite simple souls. One only existed in the mind of the writer who created him, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the other is a real person, actually a ball player in my favorite sport. I’m drawn to both of them because they both share the same quality. They live not by what other people think is right or wrong, but by what they believe is right or wrong. They are laughed at and ridiculed by lots of people but, you know, in the end both of them may be wiser than we think. They may even be wiser than the people who make fun of them.
Let’s begin with I. B. Singer’s most famous story. In English it’s called “Gimpel the Fool”. In the Yiddish original he is called “Gimpel Tam”, which I believe is a better name. Gimpel is the town simpleton. Everyone laughs at him and plays tricks on him because he is so gullible. They tell him that the rabbi’s wife has given birth to a baby, so he skips school. How was he to know that it wasn’t true?
They tell Gimpel that the czar is coming to visit their town tomorrow, and he believes them. They tell him that the moon had fallen down in Tarnipol, and he believes them. They tell him that Hodel had found a treasure that was hidden behind the bathhouse, and he believes them. They tell him that the mashiach had arrived; he believes them. And every time he falls for one of their tricks, the whole town laughs.
When he was old enough, they made a shiddach for Gimpel. They told him that she was beautiful; it turned out she had a limp, a hunchback, not to mention a temper. They told him that she was chaste and pure; it turned out she was both a widow and a divorcee and pregnant besides.
Gimpel comes home from work one night and finds his wife in bed with someone else. He did not want to wake the children, so he left and went to sleep in the barn. In the morning, he went to the rabbi and asked what he should do, because he knew you’re not allowed to stay married to a woman who commits adultery. They summoned his wife, and she denied everything. She said that Gimpel must be imagining things.
The rabbi said that Gimpel was no longer allowed to live with his wife because she may have been unfaithful, so he slept in the barn from then on. But he missed her terribly and he missed the children, even the ones she had during this period when he was not allowed to live with her. So he went back to the rabbi and said he must have made a mistake and imagined that he saw someone in his bed.
The rabbi said he would appoint a bet din to study the matter of whether a witness can recant his testimony or not, and he would let Gimpel know their decision. The bet din took over a year to study the question, and during that time, Gimpel’s wife gave birth to another child.
Even when he was not allowed to live with her, Gimpel sent his wife a package of food every single day. Sometimes he sent her pastries, sometimes he sent her roast beef, sometimes he sent her other food, and he always made sure to send presents and delicacies for the children as well, because he really loved them.
At the end of Singer’s story, Gimpel looks back over his life, and he says to himself, “You know what? I have had a good life, perhaps a better life than those who had their fun by telling me lies. What did they get for their lies? They fooled a fool? Mazal tov! Anybody can do that.
“What did I get by believing them? I got a wife, I got many children, I got a pleasure and a purpose in my life from raising them. So who’s better off? Me – or those who made fun of me?”
So, “Gimpel the Simple” – isn’t that the best name for him? – Gimpel the Simple lives content. In his dreams he sees his wife who is no longer living but whom he imagines must be missing him in heaven, or wherever she is. He says that he wants to die so that he can be with her, but in his dreams she tells him to be patient and wait until God calls him.
And he says, “No doubt the world to come is an imaginary world, but still it’s only one step removed from this world, and, who knows, perhaps it is more real than this. And when I go there, I know that I will be in a place where there is no ridicule, there’s no deception. Baruch haShem, there even Gimpel the Simple cannot be deceived.”
Do you understand now why I like him? I ask you, who lived a better life – Gimpel or the ones who used their wit and their wisdom to fool an innocent person who had no wit and no wisdom? Who was happier – Gimpel who had a wife whom he loved and children whom he adored, or the cynics who loved to tell him that his wife was a cheat and those children were not his?
Truly, God loves the simple, and God protects them, and so should we.
Now, let me tell you my second story about a fool. This one may be harder to believe, but it is absolutely true. It happened a little more than a year ago in Kansas City and was in all the newspapers. And, of course, if a story is in all the newspapers, then it must be true, right?
The Kansas City Royals – for the uninitiated, that’s a baseball team – had a pitcher whose name was Gil Meche. He did well for the Royals, won a bunch of games, and so prior to the 2007 season, they gave Meche a five-year contract for $55 million. Last year, he was to be paid $12 million, the final year of the contract. I don’t know about you, but for me, $12 million is not small change.
What we need to understand is that baseball contracts are legally binding. If a player shows up and does his job, there is no way that management can break his contract. If a player is injured in the middle of the season and can’t play any longer, the contract is still binding. In other words, in the middle of a five-year contract, if a player gets hurt and can’t play again, all he has to do is show up for spring training – he doesn’t have to play in a single game – but he still gets his money.
During the winter, Gil Meche developed an aching shoulder which made it very hard for him to pitch. But all he had to do was show up at spring training and let the team physician examine his shoulder. The doctor would have declared him unable to play, and Meche could have sat out the rest of the season and drawn his full $12 million salary.
Gil Meche did not do that. Instead, he decided not to go to spring training and to retire. He said it felt kind of funny to earn all that money for doing nothing.
Here’s the exact quote, “When I signed my contract, my main goal was to earn it. Once I started to realize I wasn’t earning my money, I felt bad. I was making a crazy amount of money for not even pitching. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I deserved it.”
So, Meche told the Royals’ general manager that he did not want any of the paycheck – no settlement, no buy out, no strings. He felt the organization had been very good to him. He felt he needed to retire which, in his mind was the right thing to do, because he couldn’t see himself taking all that money for doing nothing.
When the media got hold of Meche’s statement, they went wild. They printed all kinds of columns mocking Gil Meche, ridiculing him for retiring when he could have made $12 million just by showing up at spring training. They called him a fool for what he did. I quote:
“Meche’s decision to pass up $12 million is certainly honorable, but given the inherent risk of his profession, it was also idiotic.”
So, let me ask you: in your opinion, was Gil Meche really a fool or not? And do you think you could have done what he did?
To be fair, he’d already made a good deal of money in previous seasons. But when he was asked why he did it, he said, “I did it because I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning and not feel ashamed by the face of the person looking back at me”.
I believe that’s a very powerful statement: “I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror and not feel ashamed by the face of the person looking back at me.” That was worth at least $12 million to Gil Meche.
I don’t know if you admire Gil Meche or not. I don’t know what I would have done if I were in his Nikes. Who can say what they would do until they are in that situation? But this I do know: Gimpel the Simple would have understood Gil Meche, and he would have welcomed him into the fellowship of holy fools.
And I think that God will welcome Gil Meche too some day, because he’s the kind of person that God had in mind when it says in the Hallel, Shomer pitayim haShem, that God loves simple people, and God considers them wiser and smarter than a lot of the other people who think they are so smart.
So, that’s why I vote not for the chacham, and not for the rasha, and not for the sh’eino yodea lishol. I vote instead for the tam as my favorite child at the seder. My friends, I hope you’ll consider voting for him too. Amen
– I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Riemer for this message.