Is Judaism focused on expressing our gratitude for what we have now or looking forward to Messianic times? This Shabbat, ahead of Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol (the Great Shabbat), which marks the day on which the Jews who had been enslaved in Egypt collected a lamb, ready to sacrifice it.
The blood of the lamb represented their willingness to sacrifice an Egyptian god (for such was the lamb) to their higher belief in the Lord of redemption and freedom.
They performed this Pascal sacrifice during the killing of the firstborn of the Egyptians. The Israelites were united in their commitment to the Almighty and fulfillment of this command, including remaining in their homes despite the fact that the Egyptian streets were ripe for looting in the frenzied hysteria which most certainly accompanied the death of the Egyptian firstborn.
Others suggest that it is called the Great Shabbat because traditionally rabbis would give lengthy sermons on this day explaining the laws of the Passover festival.
Perhaps the most famous explanation is given by the Abudraham (Spain, flourished 1340). He refers us to the portion of the Prophets that we read this week, which includes the words: “Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord”(Malachi 4:5). We recall Elijah again at the Seder as we pour his cup of wine and open the door for him. Yet, if the Seder looks forward to the times of Elijah and the coming of the Messiah, we also seem to mark our deep satisfaction with what we have, by singing Dayenu, which translates as “it would have been enough for us.”
If Dayenu’s purpose was simply to list a series of blessings God bestows upon the Jewish people starting with their exodus from Egypt and ending with the Temple’s establishment in the Promised Land then it would not have been necessary to repeat the refrain “it would have been enough...” after every single line.
For indeed, after the “Dayenus,” the text immediately spells out everything God did for the Jews without the “it would have been enough.”
The climactic moment of the Exodus takes place seven days after the sacrifice of the Passover lamb; the Israelites flee from the Egyptian cavalry towards the Red Sea terrified in the face of what seems like certain death. But then an amazing miracle – the Red Sea splits, the Jews enter on dry land and the pursuing charioteers drown.
The Torah portion read on the seventh day of Passover is the Shira (The Song) an ode to this great moment.
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord: “I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea” (Exodus 15:1).
The first two words of the Shira – az yashir – are somewhat problematic. Most translators suggest it means “Moses sang” in the past tense, even though literally the words mean “then Moses will sing.” Rashi explains the use of the future tense by suggesting the phrase means that back at the time when Red Sea was being split Moses decided then that in the future he would compose a song commemorating this moment.
Regardless of how we translate az yashir, the fact is that the Shira begins in a future tone, and the reason for this has a lot to do with why the Sages made Dayenu central to the Haggada.
Jews, as we know, break a glass at every wedding ceremony. No matter how joyous things are, we are committed to remembering that so long as complete redemption has not yet arrived, the shards of broken glass still exist so long as complete redemption has not yet arrived. It’s not that we are a pessimistic people, rather we are realistic. Our way to God is built on the tears we have shed.
When we sing the Shira, it’s the greatest moment the Jewish people have ever experienced as a nation, but two things undermine its glory. How can angels sing, God wants to know, if His creatures (the Egyptians) are drowning? Second, the Shira is a great event, but 40 years of wandering in the desert await the Jews, wars with Amalek, Midianites, spiritual tests, physical tests.
The road ahead is rough; this generation will have to die out before the people enter the Promised Land. All this adds up to awareness that the future must contain a greater moment, an ultimate redemption. This idea is alluded to in the first two words. True, Moses “sang,” but there is more that will be sung about – in the future.
In the present, in a world not yet redeemed, we cannot truly sing.
Dayenu comes to balance the broken glass. It’s not enough only to focus on what we’re lacking, we must also appreciate what we have already attained. Usually, no matter how bad things are, we have a talent for making them worse by concentrating on all we lack. The basic message of Dayenu, and ultimately of the Seder, is that we have to concentrate on what we have achieved even though it may be short of perfection. And still, we never stop looking forward to a world perfected by the Messiah and his herald, Elijah the prophet.
Shabbat shalom and hag sameah
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.
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