The Four Children and the Environment

by Rabbi Shlomo Levin

On Passover we read about the four children- the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. Each has a different attitude toward the Passover holiday, and we can often picture a stereotype of what type of person they represent. What if these same four children discussed the environment? What kinds of people could we imagine them to be?

Recently Airbus reported the sale of the first private passenger version of its A380 super jumbo jet, to be called the “flying palace.” An unidentified buyer intends to spend more than $300 million to purchase the largest commercial aircraft ever built, designed to carry 550+ passengers, for his own personal use and pleasure. That means he will be using a vehicle that requires 82,000 gallons of fuel per fill up for private transportation. From an environmental perspective, here is someone we may envision as a wicked child. He takes for himself while not considering the resources made unavailable to others or the environmental harm his actions cause and from which others will suffer. How am I supposed to feel trying to conserve gasoline when I drive while he is flying around in this giant airplane?

The Haggadah’s response to the wicked child is “You should set his teeth on edge- tell him that if he was in Egypt he wouldn’t have been redeemed.” Similarly, people that flagrantly disregard the impact of their actions on our environment need to be forcefully told that their behavior is wrong. All the better if this would be done by a government taxing away all their money. Short of that, we need to treat people that behave like this in a way that shows that we are not awed or impressed by their wealth. Rather, we hold them in contempt due to their lack of values. We should let them know that their riches are an embarrassment to them because they make their moral shortcomings more public and visible.

Who is the simple child, whose question consists only of the words, “What is this?” These may be people that are concerned about the environment but due to their limited resources and the pressures of making a living are unable to do anything to improve it, and may even make it worse. For example, one of the main causes of deforestation of tropical rainforests is impoverished farmers cutting down trees in order to increase the land available to them to grow crops. The environmental consequences of this are severe- species are driven to extinction as their natural habitats are destroyed, local climate is altered, and carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.[1]

Quite possibly, the individuals doing this regret the environmental consequences of their actions and would refrain from them if they felt they could. But the immediate need to support themselves and their families via the only means they know trumps all other concerns.

The Haggadah says regarding the simple child to explain to him the basics of the Passover story. Similarly, we need to reach out to people in this predicament with simple, easy to implement ideas that make sense in their situation. We should provide them with the means to engage in more environmentally friendly farming and show them how that can be in their own advantage. We need to find ways to help them raise their standard of living while nurturing their inherent self-interest in sustainability.

The ones who do not know how to ask may be people all around us that have no clue about environmental issues at all. Those of us that read Canfei Nesharim’s newsletters may forget that most people living in the Unites States have little or no knowledge of how their lifestyle in particular or our American lifestyles collectively impact the environment.

The damage done by environmental pollution usually happens far away from the polluter, well out of the polluter’s sight. It usually does not become apparent for some time, and often is invisible to the eye and only detectable via scientific study. Consider global warming- how would someone who hasn’t taken the initiative to read up on this complex issue know about it at all?

For those that do not know how to ask we need to provide straightforward information, free of scientific and political jargon, in a manner that will help people draw a clear connection between their actions and their environmental consequences. Environmental labeling on consumer goods is one manner to help people understand the environmental impact of their consumption.

If television and movie characters demonstrated concern for the environment those who don’t now know how to ask about these issues would learn from their example ways to become involved. If environmental issues would be raised prominently in political campaigns the entire public would be better educated about them.

Lastly, the wise child. The wise child’s question, “What are the laws and the statutes and the ordinances that you follow?” may translate as “What are all the consequences of my lifestyle and consumption, direct and indirect, including the entire lifecycle of the products and services I consume?” The answer is to engage this person in discussion, and tell him all the details, so that he can guide his actions accordingly.

People that are involved with environmental concerns need to think through the consequences of their actions, because they will set the example for other individuals and their demand will guide companies in product innovation and shape the choices that consumers are offered.

Are Styrofoam cups really worse than paper, particularly since paper cups are rarely recycled? Are cloth diapers really better for the environment than disposables, when we take into account the energy used to wash them? These types of trade-offs must be considered and explored.

More broadly, when and how much environmental change or damage should we accept in order to improve the living conditions of other people? It is easy to mount a campaign to save every endangered species and stop every bit of pollution, but more difficult to articulate a clear rationale for evaluating the practical tradeoffs that are necessary to make environmentalism fit into our overall scheme of values.

One final question: Which of these four children will grow to treat our earth best?

It is easy to hold up the wise child as a model and wish that everyone would copy him.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we know enough about the wise child from his question in order to be sure. The wise child has knowledge, but does he have compassion and empathy? Does he have real concern for the needs of other people living in the here and now as well as a concern for future generations and the environment?

The wise son knows a lot, but is he still able to learn? Is he willing to hear new ideas, explore new technologies, and try new ways of doing things or is he too busy showing off how environmentally friendly his lifestyle already is to continue adjusting it for the better?

We need more people with all these traits at the tables where environmental issues are discussed, so that our needs are addressed with compassion, wisdom, and justice for today and for future generations.


[1]    See

Originally posted in “On Eagles’  Wings” March 27th 2007