Out There: Not a ‘dayenu’ people

We are a hyperbolic people, taking every issue and problem to its most extreme conclusion.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
I love the period of the Jewish year from Passover to Shavuot, the part of the calendar we have just completed.
I love it because the civic holidays added into the traditional 49-day Counting of the Omer period – Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, Independence Day and Jerusalem Day – force us to step back from obsessing about the day-to-day threats, problems and challenges facing the state and widen the lens.
These holidays compel us to see the rich forest and not only the gnarled and knotty trees. They force us to look where we were in 1945, coming out of the Holocaust, and where we are today.
This part of the calendar presses us – for just a moment – to see not only what we don’t have, not only our failings, but also what we do have, what we have accomplished.
And as a people, that’s no easy task. We Jews – because of our history – have this tendency to fear, see and worry about the worst.
We are also a hyperbolic people, taking every issue and problem to its most extreme conclusion.
If there is a bad law in the Knesset, and there will be bad laws in the Knesset – just as there are bad laws in parliaments all over the world – we can’t say it’s just a bad law; we have to blow it up into a threat to the very fabric of democracy.
If, for halachic reasons, religious soldiers don’t want to hear a woman sing and walk out of a ceremony featuring a woman singing, this can’t just be a localized incident that could be dealt with by the officer in charge with some common sense and sensitivity; it must be a telltale sign that Israel is quickly turning into theocratic Iran.
And if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former US president Barack Obama have sincere differences over Iran and the settlements, this can’t just be two leaders with vastly different worldviews disagreeing over important issues; it must mean that US-Israel ties are in crisis and at an unprecedented breaking point.
Moreover, we are also a people that feeds on drama. We see ourselves at the center of everything, and if there is not an earth-shattering news event each morning when we turn on the radio, we pinch ourselves and wonder if we are still alive.
And if there is no drama, we simply take something nondramatic and overdramatize it.
Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, the late justice minister and father of Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, once wrote that if a drainage pipe bursts in Tel Aviv, the next day’s blaring front-page headline in Yediot Aharonot will be that the country’s entire sewage system is on the verge of collapse.
AND WHEN, finally, there is some good news, we – as a people – don’t know how to handle it. If there is a silver lining, we hunt for the cloud.
If the American administration signs a Memorandum of Understanding granting Israel $38 billion in military aid over 10 years, we ask why that number is not $45b. and complain that the prime minister mishandled the negotiations.
If US President Donald Trump stops in Israel on his first trip abroad, we ask why he didn’t come here first but, rather, started his trip in Riyadh.
And if public opinion polls show that American support for Israel is at near record highs, we can’t for just a moment relish in the support of the majority of the American public, but, rather, fret that we are losing the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.
As I have written before, we fret, therefore we are. And there is definitely what to fret about (including that we’re losing the Bernice Sanders wing of the Democratic Party). But we need perspective.
ALL THIS got me thinking as I was sitting at the Passover Seder with my family two months ago, singing “Dayenu” – that wonderful song of gratitude and appreciation.
“Had He [God] taken us out of Egypt, and not carried out His judgment against them [the Egyptians] – that would have been enough for us,” we sing.
“Had He only split the Red Sea, and not brought us through it on dry land – that would have been enough for us,” we continue.
“Had He only brought us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah – that would have been enough for us.”
There I was, singing that song with great gusto, when – thinking of Israel’s current state of affairs – it hit me.
“Who wrote this?” I shouted at my kids.
“It definitely wasn’t a Jewish guy. Some Protestant fellow wrote this. The Jewish people are many things, we are not a dayenu people.”
Which is why this part of the calendar is so important – it forces us to put things into perspective. Compare where we are today to where we were 75 years ago – just one lifetime ago – and the difference is simply mind-blowing.
Even some of our unpleasant internal disputes need to be put into perspective, like the one we now constantly have over prayer arrangements at the Western Wall.
Indeed, it is sad and unseemly that Jews fight Jews about how to pray at the Western Wall. But had you told your great-great-grandparents that this is what the Jews would be arguing about in a sovereign Jewish state in just a few generations, they would have looked at you like you were crazy and rubbed their ears in disbelief.
Yes, it is distasteful and jarring that we have those types of arguments. But it is also miraculous that we can.