(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Dayenu” (“Enough”) is a highly popular song, but rather childish. I guess its popularity is mostly due to its melodies. We all have our favorite version, though the well known tunes actually have little musical quality. We fall over ourselves with the speed at which we try to get our tongues around the words and with the noise that we evoke, the resultant excitement is palpable. It all seems like a lively game that has been designed merely to keep us awake.
When I was a child in Melbourne, Australia, our heder (Jewish children’s’ school) joined with others each year in a Demonstration Seder led by a remarkable pedagogue, Rabbi L. M. Goldman, who had even more fun than we did when it came to “Dayenu,” and years later when I ran Demonstration Seders I did them a la Goldman.
I also recall how when I was a rabbi in Sydney, our synagogue choirmaster ended the Passover service with a rousing Adon Olam set to the “Dayenu” tune, and everyone left the synagogue in a “Dayenu” reverie.
But “Dayenu” is surely more than a Purim spiel, and it has more content and substance than most people imagine.
You can put up a good argument for the claim that the author was not a fool but a philosopher. However, if you ask who that author was, you won’t get an answer – we simply don’t know. He (it’s presumably not a she) could have lived at the time of the Second Temple, though the song in its present form is from the early Middle Ages.
The historian Cecil Roth says in his Haggada, “The elaboration of the story of the Exodus leads up to a hymn of thanksgiving. The idea is taken from the Sifre to Deuteronomy chapter 32. It is a specimen of the Hebrew liturgical poem in its most primitive form. It is noteworthy, however, that it was omitted by Maimonides in his formulary of the Haggadah.”
“Dayenu” is a litany like Al Chet and Avinu Malkenu. Its 15 lines list boons and benefits which God bestowed upon us from the time of the Exodus onwards. The number 15 – one of the favorite biblical numbers, like three, seven and 10 – may reflect the 15 steps leading up to the main hall of the Temple, the 15 Psalms of Ascents or the 15 stages that are said to lead the righteous to perfection. In addition, the gematria (the numerical value) of the letters of one of the Hebrew names of God is 15.
No-one knows for certain why the author chose “Dayenu” as his refrain. It obviously connotes “enough!” – or, since many of us live under a Yiddish influence, “Enough already!” But with what inflection? Is it an exclamation? If so, it hardly makes sense. How can we imply that if God had simply taken us out of Egypt and done nothing more, that would have been sufficient? A preposterous thought! Would we really have been satisfied without Mount Sinai, without the Torah, Jerusalem the Holy City or the Temple? This cannot be the poet’s intention.
A better alternative is that we must be thankful even for small mercies. We have no automatic right to expect ongoing miracles. Even one miracle warrants our gratitude.
If God had redeemed us from Egypt and done no more, wouldn’t that already have been something remarkable? Imagine how long and deeply our Israelite ancestors wept over their bondage, and how they dreamed and yearned for God to step in and deliver them. Could any redemption have been sweeter? No wonder Michael Rubiner in his recent Two Minute Haggadah – a Passover Service for the Impatient, says simply, “Thanks again, God, for everything.” This reminds us that there is a Jewish ethical teaching of hakarat hatov, the duty of being thankful for favors. Of course the favors listed in “Dayenu” are clear and indisputable, but there are other favors that are not so evident until we find them to be silver linings of what appear to be just clouds.
I know a rabbi who only discovered he had a problem with high blood pressure when he went to a Hanukka fair at which getting your blood pressure measured was one of the stalls. It annoyed him to have to go to his doctor the next day and get put on medication, but it has kept him alive past the age of 80.
I know many people who find it hard to show hakarat hatov, though they never show any reluctance to complain when things go wrong. Actually, there is a serious theological issue here. We are (rightly) concerned with what is technically called the Problem of Evil (“how can God allow so many bad things to happen?”). Hakarat hatov suggests that if we object to the evil in the world, we should not be tardy in acknowledging the Problem of Good (“do we really deserve all the good things that we enjoy, all the blessings that come from life, and from God?”).
If one possibility is that “Dayenu” teaches us to say “thank you,” an alternative idea is that Dayenu is not an exclamation at all, but a question. We’re curious: if God had merely given us a first boon, would that really have been enough? If there was a second, would even that have been enough? How can we celebrate climbing one mountain when there are always others ahead? Without a “dayenu” – ending each line with a question mark – it sounds as though we have no further hopes or ambitions.
But this interpretation becomes rather problematical when we come to the last verse of the song, which speaks about God building the Temple. When the sanctuary came into being, surely that was quite sufficient as an achievement! A climax, a crescendo – how much higher can we hope to go once that much is attained? Do we still need to add on another interrogative “dayenu” – with a question mark? The answer is that even with a Temple – and we daily pray for it despite all the political furor that surrounds the Temple Mount – there is still a spiritual mountain to climb: bringing the whole world to Jerusalem to acknowledge God and call upon His Name. When we have achieved that, we will be entitled to change the final “dayenu” from a question into an exclamation.The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.