In the final verses of Parashat Bo, Moshe relays to Benei Yisrael a series of laws aimed at commemorating the night of the Exodus, and foresees the time when children will inquire about the meaning and reason of these observances: “It shall be, when your son asks you in the future, saying, ‘What is this?’…” (13:4). The parent is then instructed to answer, “The Lord took us from Egypt, from the house of bondage with a mighty hand,” and to tell the child about the plague of the firstborn which forced Pharaoh to release Benei Yisrael.
As we know from the text of the Haggadah read at the seder on Pesach, the Sages understood this verse as referring to the tam – the “simple” child. This appears also in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:4), paraphrased by Rashi in his commentary to this verse, where he writes, “This is an unintelligent child, who does not know how to ask a deep question, and asks very simply, ‘What is this?’” The Torah here foresees the time when, in Rashi’s words, a “tinok tipeish” – “unintelligent child” – will wonder about his parents’ religious observances, and will ask the unsophisticated question, “Ma zot” – “What is this?”
The Tolna Rebbe raised the question of whether this interpretation of the verse can be reconciled with a Midrashic passage in Vayikra Rabba (11:7) associating the word “ve-haya” with joy and celebration. The Midrash there states that the Torah uses the word “ve-haya” specifically in reference to joyous events. Applying that rule to this verse in Parashat Bo – which begins, “Ve-haya ki yish’alekha binkha” (“It shall be, when you son asks you”) – it seems we are forced to conclude that the prospect of a “tinok tipeish,” an ignorant, foolish child, posing a simple, unsophisticated question, is something to celebrate. Is this, in fact the case?
The Tolna Rebbe suggests that indeed, any opportunity to educate any child at any level is a joyous moment. Even if a child has disappointed in the past, falling far short of expectations, and has achieved so poorly that he can be accurately described as a “tinok tipeish,” the opportunity to teach him and advance him, if only slightly, is something to cherish and celebrate. The value of education does not depend on the student’s current level, capabilities or potential. Any progress achieved in the education and religious growth of any child is joyous and worthy of being celebrated, irrespective of his past performance or current standing. When even an ignorant Jewish child asks a simple question about Torah observance, this is truly an event worth celebrating.