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Thoughts on Dayenu

Two angels descended to earth, each one carrying a basket. Wherever anyone stood in prayer, the angels stopped and entered. Schools, palaces, hospitals, and stores all merited a visit by these angels. The basket of one angel quickly filled up and became heavy with the weight of the words he gathered. The basket of the second angel was almost empty. Into the first basket went prayers of petition, “please give me this...” “please, I want this….” The basket of the second angel received prayers of thanks. “Your basket seems very light,” said the first angel to the second. “Yes,” said the second carrying the basket of thanks, “Most people are ready to pray for what they want or need, but only a few remember to thank God when He grants them their request, perhaps because they are not satisfied with what they have.”….The ability and the need to give thanks is the greatest good that God grants us, this is what makes us human. (Eliyahu Safran, Kos shel Eliyahu)

Dayenu, the spirited seder song, comes right in the middle of the Haggadah. After we have enumerated all the plagues, the signs and wonders that God brought upon Egypt, it is only right that we take the time to offer thanks to God for all of the many blessings He has bestowed upon us. The opening line of the poem is “Kama ma’alot tovot lamakom aleinu.” “How many ma’alot of goodness has God bestowed upon us.” The word ma’alot usually means good deeds, but it has also been translated as “degrees” or “layers” in different haggadot. Ma’alot can also mean “steps” or “ascents”. Building on that, the rabbis remind us that there were 15 ma’alot, 15 steps, going up to the Temple from the women’s court and that there are 15 Psalms in the Psalter designated as Shirei HaMa’alot, Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120 – 134). Thus the author of this song has taken 15 acts of God at the time of the Exodus and listed them in ascending order. After each one, we say “Dayenu,” “It would have been enough for us.”

In our haftarah last Shabbat for Shabbat HaGadol, the prophet Malachi cites God’s promise, “V’harikoti lachem bracha ad b’li dai,” “I will shower you with an abundant blessing.” “Ad b’li dai” is difficult to translate precisely. It has the sense of “until you can no longer say ‘enough’ any more” or as the rabbis put it, “Until your lips wear out saying ‘enough’ “dai.” Reflecting on the many blessings we received at the time of the Exodus, we feel similarly that we cannot say “dayenu” enough.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes in his haggadah commentary about how these blessings are layered one on top of the next. Thus we begin with the basic blessing that God brought us out of Egypt. Had He done this without bringing judgment upon Egypt with the plagues, it would have been enough for us, dayenu. But He indeed brought judgment upon Egypt and had He done this without destroying their gods, it would have been enough, dayenu. Yet He destroyed their gods and had He done so without slaying the firstborn, it would have been enough, dayenu. However, He slew the firstborn and had He done so without giving us their wealth, dayenu. But He gave us their wealth. Had He done so and perhaps taken us on a different route without splitting the sea for us, dayenu. However, He split the sea and not only that but He brought us across on dry land, dayenu. In addition, He did not stop the Egyptians from entering the sea and drowning them in the returning water, that would have been enough, dayenu. Once we got into the wilderness, He could have left us on our own, yet He continued to provide all our needs for forty years, dayenu. But that was not all, He was not satisfied providing normal food for us, but He gave us this miraculous substance, the manna, which not only sustained us physically, but had a spiritual component as well, dayenu. That spiritual component was Shabbat which we learned about when the manna did not fall on that day, but came in double measure the day before, dayenu. Shabbat was only the beginning; He also brought us to Mount Sinai and revealed His presence to us, that would have been enough, dayenu. But it wasn’t, He gave us His Torah as well. Dayenu, that should have sufficed, but He also brought us into the Land of Israel so we could fully observe that Torah, dayenu. And there was a fifteenth step as well, in addition He built the Temple for us, dayenu, that too would have been enough.

The author of the Haggadah then sums it all up by saying, “How many good things, doubled and redoubled has God done for us” and He lists them all again, “… He brought us out of Egypt, He brought judgment upon the Egyptians, … He brought us to the land of Israel and built for us the House He chose (the Temple), so we could find atonement there for all our sins.”

The Mekhilta, the halachic midrash on Exodus, cites a kind of reverse dayenu in which the Egyptians enumerate their humiliations: “Had we been plagued without letting them go, it would have been enough (k’dai hu). Or if we had been plagued and let them go without our money being taken k’dai hu. But we were plagued and let them go and they took our money.” Thus, not learning a lesson, they set out to pursue the departing former slaves and ended up even worse, being drowned in the sea.

Some commentators claim that the second century Rabbi, Akiva, the author of the preceding paragraph in the Haggadah, went on to compose this hymn as well. Others link it even a bit earlier to Temple times. However, Dayenu does not appear in any early haggadot from the Cairo Genizah and its earliest appearance that we know of is in the 10th century haggadah of Rav Saadia Gaon. Saadia gives it as one of two options at this point in the seder. One could read this piece, Dayenu, or the piece that now precedes it on the varying numbers of plagues in Egypt and at the Red Sea. Some have tried to link this hymn to a third century Good Friday sermon of the early Church father, Melito of Sardis, either as a response to Melito who preached against ungrateful Israel or, for those who thought Dayenu came first, Melito is refuting the premise of the Dayenu. Contemporary scholars think it unlikely that the two sources are at all connected. However Melito’s sermon and the Dayenu are both parallel to Psalm 78 which cites Israel for ingratitude. Rabbi Joshua Kulp in the Schechter Haggadah notes that there is a similar theme also in Psalms 106 and in the post-biblical work of IV Ezra, chapter 1 (which scholars believe is a Christian addition to that book). “Hence,” Kulp concludes, “there is no reason to assume that the Dayyenu was responding to a Christian polemic. Rather it may be echoing an ancient biblical trope and ‘correcting it’. While Melito echoed the Psalm in his attack against the Jews, the composer of Dayyenu flipped the Psalm’s theme on its head, emphasizing that Israel was indeed grateful for every gift given to them by God.”

A contemporary Haggadah called the “Seder of the Children of Abraham” replaces Dayenu with a litany of past failures in the Middle Eastern peace efforts and then gives a list of specific hopes for the reconciliation of the modern-day children of Abraham:

If only there had not been mistrust Oy lanu (woe for us)

If only there had not been a Holocaust Oy lanu

If only there had not been so many soldiers killed Oy lanu

If only there had not been so many made homeless Oy lanu

If only there had not been so many massacres Oy lanu

If only there had not been so many terrorist attacks Oy lanu

If only there had not been so many bombings Oy lanu

If only so many children had not died Oy lanu

If only both peoples would renounce violence Dayenu

If only both peoples would talk to each other Dayenu

If only both peoples would recognize each other’s rights Dayenu

If only they would appreciate each other’s cultures Dayenu

If only they would recognize their common origin and destiny Dayenu

If only the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael could live face to face Dayenu

If only they would beat their swords into plowshares Dayenu

If only both peoples could share the land Dayenu.

In contrast to our traditional Dayenu, this version is already showing dissatisfaction and praying for additional steps that we might find sufficient to say “dayenu.”

The latest Reform Haggadah, Mishkan HaSeder, which was published last year, contains a very abridged version of the Dayenu in the text of the Haggadah, and a slightly abridged version as an addendum to the volume. However, in addition to these two versions which utilize portions of the traditional text, is a passage in English labeled “Contemporary Dayeinu: It is Not Enough.” Here too we are reminded that we are never truly satisfied with past blessings when so much more remains to be done to bring about the future redemption. I won’t quote it all, but it touches on all sorts of modern concerns from the environment, human rights, hunger, education, housing, and so much more. This Dayenu is introduced by the leader of the seder who states:

“We have sung our dayeinus (sic), declaring that any of God’s blessings in the past would have been enough. But in our day, dare we ever think that there are enough blessings, that no more are needed? For when we look at the world around us and see how much more is needed to perfect the world, we can only say “lo dayeinu – it is not enough!”

This introduction is followed by sixteen statements of items that the world is in need of, at least according to the agenda of the author, each ending with the emphatic statement, “lo dayeinu!”

At the end, the assembled participants are invited to join in the closing paragraph: “But the Rabbis taught, ‘While we are not obliged to complete all which must be done, we are obliged never to give up.’ So were we to say that we truly did our part to ensure for others the safety, security, health, joy, freedom, and hope we cherish sitting at this seder table with family and friends, knowing that our work will never be completed and that there is no such thing as enough, we will have earned the right to say...dayeinu! Dayeinu!”

While I appreciate this statement of the world’s needs and prayers and am ready to sign onto it, if we go back to the story of the two angels, we realize that once again, rather than being grateful for what we have, we are again pleading for much more. The world we live in is far from perfect, there are many areas where we can work to improve the life of the people of this planet. In effect that’s the purpose of the second part of the seder where we look to the future redemption of messianic times as we open the door for Elijah. We speak of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty in the Alenu prayer at the end of every service. Again and again, the Torah reminds us that because we came forth from Egypt, because we know the heart of the stranger, we have an obligation to work toward the betterment of the world. Dayenu, however, in the first section of the Haggadah, is supposed to be a different kind of prayer, one where we take a moment to reflect on all that we have and all that God has done for us in that first redemption. Yes, there is so much more to be done and there should be opportunities to express those needs, but the intent of Dayenu is to stop and say ‘thank you’ for the blessings we already enjoy, to recognize God’s blessings at the time of the Exodus.

However, it is true, the sages believed that the future redemption of the world will come at this season and for that reason, after we have given thanks for the past, we may indeed join in the lo dayenu prayer suggested for the future. Let us not be ungrateful for the gifts we have already received and which lay the foundation for our people and our tradition even as we recognize that it is that very tradition which urges us on to work for the messianic dreams of the future.

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