This week we pause in the yearly cycle of Torah readings to celebrate Passover/Pesach. The Passover ritual celebrates the exodus from Egypt—but not only by telling the story. The seder (“order” or agenda) that has evolved over that last 2,000 years has 13 sections of ritual plus dinner, punctuated by blessing four cups of wine.
To keep track of it all, Jews have a haggadah (“the telling”—plural haggadot), a book to work through during the long evening of ritual. But the old joke applies that wherever you have two Jews you have three opinions, so we keep writing new haggadot, retaining the basic elements but explaining them in new ways.
Some haggadot associate the four cups of wine with the four “worlds” of kabbalah, so that as we bless each cup we ascend one stage closer to God.
Assiyah (עֲשִׂיָה) = action. (From the verb asah = make, do. Assiyah is the physical world we operate in.)
Yetzirah (יְצִירָה) = formation. (From the verb yatzar = form, shape. Yetzirah includes intuitions, dreams, myth, and metaphor. Although the word yetzirah does not mean emotion, it is often associated with emotion because it is non-rational.)
Beriah (בְּרִיאָה) = creation. (From the verb bara = create. Beriah includes inventing and designing in the stage of abstract ideas.)
Atzilut (אֲצִילוּת) = emanation. (Probably from the preposition eitzel = beside, next to. The world of Atzilut is undifferentiated divine spirit.)
Human beings operate in the world of assiyah, and approach awareness of God by rising up through yetzirah and beriah toward atzilut. This is the order in which we drink the four cups of wine on Passover. The fourth cup, representing atzilut, comes at the end of the evening, when we are exhausted and uninhibited.
During the first part of the seder (covered by the first two ritual cups of wine) we build up to the story of the exodus with songs and stories based on the number four, including “the four questions” about why this night is different from all other nights, and the description of four types of children (traditionally “the four sons”).
The four children are based on four passages in the Torah which tell parents what to say when their children express curiosity about Passover:
When your son will ask you in the future, saying: What are the rules and the decrees and the laws that God, our god, commanded you? Then you shall say to your son: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:20-21)
A traditional haggadah labels this son “the wise son” because he wants to know all the rules.
And it will happen that your son says to you: What is this service to you? Then you shall say: It is an animal-offering to God, because He pasach over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, by dealing a blow to Egypt but rescuing our houses. (Exodus/Shemot 12:26)
pasach (פָּסַח) = limped, skipped. (One possible meaning of the word Pesach is “skip over”.)
Tradition labels this son “the wicked son” on the grounds that he seems uninterested in what Passover might mean to himself.
And it will happen that your son asks you, in the future, saying: What is this? Then you shall say to him: With a strong hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Exodus 13:14)
Tradition labels this son “the simple son” because his question is elementary.
The Torah has no fourth question from a son about Passover, so the early rabbis found a fourth question implied in the following verse:
And you shall tell your son that day, saying: Because God did this for me when I went out from Egypt. (Exodus 13:8)
Tradition labels this son “the son who does not know how to ask”.
In an earlier post, I suggested that the four sons could correspond to the four sons of Aaron in the Torah. (See Shemini: Four Sons.)
But we can also look at these four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah. Here is the “Four Children” section in the haggadah I wrote this year:
Children of the Four Worlds
Assiyah: One kind of child (the so-called “simple son”) asks: “Mah zot? What is that?” This is the child of Assiyah, the world of doing. Assiyah people are most interested in practical action, the physical senses, and tangible things.
Yetzirah: Another child (the so-called “wicked son”) asks: “What does this ritual mean to you?” This is the child of Yetzirah,the world of intuition, dreams, and metaphors. Yetzirah people are most interested in personal symbolic meanings. They are introspective and find more truth in the arts than in the sciences.
Beriah: A third child (the so-called “wise son”) asks: “What is the meaning of the statutes, laws, and rules which our God has commanded?” This is the child of Beriah, the world of the intellect. Beriah people love abstract thinking.
Atzilut: The fourth kind of child (the so-called “son who does not know how to ask”) is silent. This is the child of Atzilut, the world of divine emanation, where all forms are aspects of God. Atzilut people seek a life of mystery, ecstasy, and divine union.
Though every human has a particular strength, all four of these worlds are aspects of being fully human. We fail if we reject one of the worlds and try to exclude it from our lives.
Pause for a few moments and consider silently: Am I spending too much of my energy in one of the worlds—Assiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, or Atzilut? Am I stuck in that world, that approach to life, as if it were an Egypt? Do I need to liberate myself so I can receive the blessings of a different world?