Seder Wisdom For Our Time

The Sabbath prior to Passover is called Shabbat Hagadol (“The Great Sabbath”). Its origins are clouded in mystery, even for us, who have access to historical records and a sophisticated historical understanding of how to read them. All the more so, was it a mystery to our medieval ancestors who had neither.

Not knowing how it began, some of these medieval Jews thought the original term had been Shabbat Hagadah “The Sabbath of the Haggadah,” because they spent the day reviewing the Seder service for use later in the week. So in preparation for my seder, I too am reviewing, and have gotten as far as  Dayyenu. We sing it, I think, because if we just read it, we might concentrate on its words, which are enough to stop us in our tracks.

Dayyenu means, “It would have been enough.” We say, for instance, “If God had only brought us to Mt. Sinai, but not given us the Torah: Dayyenu.” But do we honestly believe we would have been satisfied if God had said, “Look folks, I have a Torah up there, but you can’t have it; enjoy the view.”

Another example: “If God had split the sea for us but not led us through it on dry land: Dayyenu.” Really? What good would the split sea have been if we had been restrained on shore for the Egyptians to kill us? We should be saying lo dayyenu. Any single step toward freedom would not have been enough. Only the entire thing is dayyenu. Less would have been a teaser.

The usual explanation for calling each step “enough,” is that we were unworthy of anything more. The Italian commentator, Shibbolei Haleket is typical. God took us from Egypt, he says, the way a premature baby is rescued from its mother’s womb — unready for life outside, but taken out anyway and nurtured until it appreciates what it already has. So too, we were saved prematurely, experiencing God’s gracious deliverance stage by stage, and expected to demonstrate appreciation at each one before receiving more. Dayyenu.

But think of it. When is it normal to plead, “Enough”? Not when we don’t deserve something, but when we don’t really want it. It is as if, at each step, we pleaded, “Enough already! Please, God, no more.”

Dayyenu should be read alongside the well-known midrashim that emphasize how little Israel wanted the responsibility of being a chosen people. God, we are told, first offered Torah to other nations, who refused it altogether. We agreed to shoulder its burden only after God lifted Mt. Sinai over our heads and threatened us with extinction otherwise.

Looking back, we might find good reason to have been wary. Given the task of Torah and the history of being Jewish, we can well imagine our ancestors pleading, “Enough already. Who needs being chosen?” Every single redemptive step implies further obligation. Wouldn’t just a little obligation have been enough?

We know how it ends. We did not short-circuit salvation. God did it all, and so must we.

Because we were taken from Egypt, we must deliver others from servitude.

Because God brought judgment upon their idols, we must speak out against today’s forms of idolatry.

Because God fed us in the wilderness, we must feed others in the deserts of their lives.

Because God gave us Torah, we must study it, know it, live by it.

Because God brought us to our land, we must never be without it.

Because God built a Temple for atonement, we must admit our sins.

It goes on and on. Do we really need all this?

The answer, of course, is that we do; and more besides. The traditional Dayyenu ends with establishing the Temple, but Jewish history didn’t stop there.

Early Reform Jews added these lines to their Haggadah.

“If God had only sent us prophets of truth, dayyenu.

If God had only made us a holy people, dayyenu.”

Because God sent us prophets we must live a prophetic life: ethically (not gouging the poor, for instance) and spiritually (keeping faith with the promise of a better time to come). Because we are a holy people, we must emulate God: visiting the sick, showing compassion, insisting on justice.

We should add our own lines. After centuries of yearning, we have been returned to Eretz Yisra’el. At my seder, we sing, Ilu hechezireinu el artseinu, dayyenu. “If God had only returned us to our land, dayyenu.” Because we have reclaimed our Land, we must settle it, visit it, support it, and make it the sacred home that it was meant to be.

Passover lets us say dayyenu, as long as we don’t really mean it. We are in history for the long run. The Seder commits us to see it through, come what may.

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6 responses to “Seder Wisdom For Our Time

  1. Pingback: Dayyenu | Dr. Platypus

  2. Rebekah Robinson

    All that I would add to our obligation to the sacred land is that we must make it a land justice for all peoples. We must deal honestly will all faithful who belong to the land of Israel. The land is not ours, it does not belong to us. We belong to it as to Muslims, Christians, Druze (sp?). In order for G-d to be one, humanity must be one.

    • I agree. I would go even farther. I am not sure anything really belongs to us. The world of material objects is actually a swirling array of atoms temporarily suspended (more or less) in a current state but undergoing entropy and eventually headed for other states. For an interim period of time, we have use of that temporary state. We too are such entities, strangers in a strange land called personal existence.

      We operate with a legal fiction of ownership that obeys a system of law because we have no option, but we and all we own are temporary borrowings, in actuality.

      When people are young, they practice ownership with toys and such. They reach adulthood and begin the lifelong process of amassing material objects, most of which they never use. Many of these objects fulfill symbolic functions such as decorations in a house, momentos of where we have been, proofs that we are worth something, and the like. As people grow old they start the opposite process: divesting themselves of things and deciding what symbolic items still have value. When they die, these things that once meant so much are likely to be given away — seen as trash by those for whom they have no symbolic value.

      We never really own anything — not even ourselves.

    • I wrote a response and thought I posted it. It fails to appear, so here goes again. Pardon me if it is redundant.

      I go farther. Not only is the land not ours. Nothing else is either. Everything we think we own is really just a conglomerate of atoms in a temporary state of stasis and on its way into other states of being. During its temporary state, we think we on it. But entropy will have its way — on us as well. So we do not really even own ourselves. We do, however, have custody over ourselves insofar as we have inalienable rights of various sorts. And we have legal custody over the conglomerates we call our things too. Along with custody go rights and obligations. (Israel has custody over the land, along with certain rights that adhere to custody — and obligations as well — but I want to return to the larger point.)

      When we are young, we practice custody by use of toys. As we become adults, we begin the process of purchasing things that we claim to own. As we age, we reverse the practice, giving the things away.

      Much of what we own is not for use, actually, but for symbolic purposes of remembering where we were or marking off our homes and our persons as a certain kind of thing. I have books in my home, for example, but not just to read! I have already read many of them and probably will not return to them. They remain as symbolic items indicating the sort of book-centeredness for which I stand. When we die, none of that matters any more except to our heirs who take possession of a minimal percentage of the symbolic items to recall who we were and what we stood for.

      So no, the land is not ours in any metaphysical sense; insofar as it is part of the vastness of being, we do belong to it — and will return to it. The same is true of everything else, for that matter.

  3. Tina Fein Dinitz

    Yes, and. I also really like the comments of the Malbim, who suggests that Dayenu isn’t about whether we’re satisfied with what we experience, but rather that each of these steps individually is so remarkable as to require us to be grateful — and express that gratitude by saying Hallel (which we do, after a short excursion with Rabban Gamliel). As the intro to Hallel says, L’fichach, therefore, we are chayavim to praise…the One who did all these miracles (summary of Dayyenu here, slavery to freedom, sorrow to joy…). Each step is sufficiently marvelous as to trigger an obligation to gratitude.

    And so (and here the interpretations come together), once we’ve expressed our gratitude in song and word, then the next step is to express that gratitude in action. We were redeemed from slavery, therefore it is incumbent upon us to redeem others. As the story says, Our hands are the hands of God.

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