When it comes to Passover, four is a lucky number

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Four times (Exodus 12:26, 13:8, 13:14 and Deuteronomy 6:20) the Torah commands us to tell the story of the Exodus to our children.

Conveniently, the rabbis provide four types of sons in the Haggadah — wise, wicked, simple and one who does not know how to ask a question — to illustrate four likely reactions.

Even more conveniently, I have my own four sons — vigilant, philosophical, fun and complex, as they designate themselves — each with his own unique response.

The vigilant child, Zack, 18, asks, "What are the moral implications of being a people once enslaved?"

The philosophical one, Gabe, 14, says, "Did the Exodus really happen? If it didn't, does it matter?"

The fun one, Jeremy, 12, says, "Why is this story so boring? Why do we have to hear it every year? Let's eat."

And the complex one, Danny, 10, asks, "Isn't freedom more than just being free?"

To many rabbis, the four sons represent four types of children. We must embrace all of them and tailor the telling of the Exodus to each child's attitude and intellectual capability.

Other rabbis believe that the four sons represent four qualities within each of us. Or the four generations of Jews in exile (from the new immigrant to the lost generation) or the four ideological groups (Hellenes, Judeo-Christians, Sadducees and Essenes) that threatened Judaism when the Haggadah was being written in the first and second centuries.

Four, more than any other number, plays a significant part in the Passover celebration. In addition to four sons, there are four glasses of wine, four questions and, of course, four traditional flavors of matzah — unsalted, egg, onion and white grape.

Additionally, in Exodus 6:6-8, God makes four promises to Moses: "I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you — and I will take you to be My people."

The holiday itself even has four names: Chag HaPesach (the festival of Passover), Chag HaMatzot (the festival of matzah), Chag Ha'Aviv (the festival of spring) and Z'man Cheiruteinu (the time of our freedom).

In our home, to my husband, Larry, and myself, the number four also plays a significant role. We have four tuitions to Jewish day school, four b'nai mitzvah, four sets of braces and four bags of groceries that our sons consume on a daily basis.

We also have four responses, which our sons offer on a rotating basis, to any given request.

"Do I have to do it now?"

"It's not my turn."

"I don't feel good."

And the son who continues to stare transfixed and mute in front of the computer screen.

In general, four, in Judaism as well as some other religions, is a mystical number meaning wholeness or perfection, represented, for example, by a square or the four corners of the earth. But in our house, with four boys, the concept of wholeness, let alone perfection, is hardly mystical; it's nonexistent. Instead, we look to computer science for the definition of fragmentation or to psychology for chaos theory. Or even physics for the thermodynamics of irreversible processes.

But that's the point.

For, as the story of the four sons teaches us, each son has his own strengths, abilities, personality traits, learning styles, dreams and ways of perceiving the world. And we, as parents, have a responsibility, as King Solomon says in Proverbs 22:6, to "educate each child according to his way."

And to accomplish this without judgment, pigeonholing or cries of "That's not fair."

But not without chaos.

And so, at the Passover seder, which, not unlike every other aspect of our lives, is child-centered, we answer each son's question.

To Zack, the vigilant son, I say that as a people once enslaved, we have a self-evident and solemn obligation to protest the continuing enslavement of people around the world.

To Gabe, the philosophical son, I say that the story of the Exodus is a fundamental underpinning of our religion. The experience, regardless of whether or not it actually happened, should be embedded in the soul of every Jew.

To Jeremy, the fun son, I say that not every minute of a child's life needs to be entertaining. Sometimes you just have to sit and listen and learn.

And to Danny, the complex son, I say that, yes, freedom entails more than just being free. As Jews, we are commanded to do mitzvot, to help make the world a better place.

And lastly, to myself, I admit that four is, in fact, a mystical number representing wholeness and perfection.