'Dayenu': Pessah's unbridled enthusiasm

In many ways, Dayenu is the key song of the Seder.

seder plate 88 (photo credit: )
seder plate 88
(photo credit: )
The Pessah Haggada is the most reproduced of all Jewish books. Since the first known Haggada was printed - by Soncino in 1485 - thousands of editions have appeared in dozens of countries, with new Haggadot gracing the shelves each year. The Seder which is so meticulously orchestrated in the Haggada, is a feast for the senses: The tastes and smells of traditional Pessah cuisine, the sight of the special Pessah dishes and cutlery and the sounds of the Pessah songs create a unique "feel" in the air when the springtime festival arrives. Of all the Pessah songs so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, none is as evocative or beloved as Dayenu. In 15 lyrical verses, it traces the Jewish experience from the moment of liberation to the building of the Temple, repeating over and over again that, at each juncture, "It would have been enough." In many ways, Dayenu is the key song of the Seder: It comes first in the order of songs, and is recited prior to the lavish Seder meal, assuring that it will be sung with gusto, while we are still alert and awake. Yet Dayenu is as perplexing as it is popular. Would it really have been enough if God had divided the sea but we did not safely cross it? And if we survived that crisis but God did not provide us with food and water in the desert - so that we quickly perished - would that have been enough? And if we reached Mount Sinai, but stood there aimlessly, never receiving the 10 Commandments, what would have been the point of it all? Numerous commentators grapple with this quandary. Some say the multiplication of miracles enumerated in Dayenu allowed the fledgling nation of Israel to gradually grasp a sense of God's power and love by experiencing a divine smorgasbord of wonders that filled our every need. Though the Exodus could have been accomplished in one grand act, the sequence of amazing events solidified our faith in a supreme being who controls the flow of nature. With each new miracle, we moved further from the degraded state of slavery and closer to a sense of self-worth and self-respect. Echoing a modern theme, Dayenu emerges as a kind of "15-step" program to peoplehood. Just as a fine wine needs aging and a gourmet meal requires slow cooking, so we needed these 15 steps to graduate from bondage into the service of the one God. In this context, the motto of Dayenu becomes, "One day at a time," taking our rehabilitation into a holy nation in incremental doses. BUT I BELIEVE there is another theme at work here. It seems to me that beneath the sing-song rhythm of Dayenu lies a profound philosophy of Jewish life, so apropos for today's scene. We live in a world of boundless wonders which rival the miracle of the splitting of the sea. That which was considered science fiction a generation ago is everyday reality today. We can barely keep up with the new frontiers being conquered. In Jewish life, we have witnessed a renaissance of scholarship unrivaled in 2,000 years. Jews, by and large, are no longer excluded from any discipline of study or employment and enjoy the highest standard of living in our history. The State of Israel - resurrected before our eyes - has gathered in the exiles from 100 diasporas and built a magnificent country with a stellar army and vibrant economy and culture. Jews, finally and forever, no longer must wander the planet searching for a place to park our suitcase. And yet, it never seems to be enough for us. We seem to complain about everyone and everything. We castigate our leaders, curse the traffic, mock the justice system. The Right bemoans the Left; the secular criticize the religious; the prophets of doom obsess over what's wrong, with nary a word for what's right. We were treated to a perfect example of this "kvetch as kvetch can" syndrome last week when opposition leader Tzipi Livni launched into a venomous tirade against the new government on the day of its inauguration. In civilized countries, the losers pledge allegiance to the peoples' choice, for the good of the nation, but here the opposition toasts the public with sour grapes. DAYENU TRIES to change our focus and says,"Enough!" Stop concentrating on the empty half of the glass; instead, appreciate the part that is full. Stop looking for the dark cloud behind every silver lining. Pause periodically in the course of life and, rather than focus on what could be or what isn't, be content with what is! The Talmud identifies a person of little faith as one who holds a basket full of bread and still cries out, "But what will I eat tomorrow?!" While it's true that we have to be concerned with the future, and prepared for the hazards in the road ahead, our faith in God and confidence in our own strength and savvy should buoy our spirits and fill us with hope. Each step of Dayenu, it's true, was incomplete if viewed as a continuum. Jewish history would seem hollow with revelation, Israel or the building of a spiritual center. But, standing as one at Mount Sinai, basking in our new-found freedom, we could savor the moment and give thanks for how far we had come, rather than worry about tasks unfinished and tomorrow's long climb. We could appreciate Israel for all its bounty, for its breathtaking topography of mountains, deserts, lush fields and tropical sea - even as we admitted it was as yet incomplete. We need to see Dayenu not as a whole, with historical perspective that makes each step dependent upon the next, but rather as the Children of Israel saw it (all) while they were experiencing it! Imagine their tremendous exhilaration and relief as their enemies went down in the sea, ending the physical threat to their existence. Their joy at that moment was pure and real; they appreciated the moment for what it was, with no fixation on the hurdle to come. And precisely because they were grateful, and their hearts sang out to God, they merited the next step in their deliverance. At the heart of Dayenu is Pessah's sense of unbridled enthusiasm. Coming as it does in spring, Pessah calls us to face the world with a positive outlook, sublimating our negativity. The Seder could have been a gloomy rehashing of all the dark episodes of slavery wrought upon us for two centuries. Instead, after a brief look at the bondage, the Haggada quickly adopts a celebratory mood, with unabashed revelry and large helpings of food and drink. Did we suffer? Yes. But we don't dwell on it; the clarion call of the Seder which rings in our ears is the upbeat message of "Next year in Jerusalem." God knows - and the media reinforce - that we have plenty of reasons to grumble and grouse. But why focus on those when there is so much good to celebrate? Some people say that only when the Redemption comes will they relax, smile and be happy. I say these people have it backward: If we start being happy and have a positive outlook, we will bring the Redemption! The traditional greeting of Pessah- "Have a kosher and happy Pessah" - reminds us that only when Judaism is infused with joy - when simcha is literally the "last word" - will we achieve our true liberation. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana. jocmtv@netvision.net.il