Guest editorial

‘Dayainu’

Wishful thinking or true gratitude—a Passover thought

By RABBI LAWRENCE S. ZIERLER
Posted 4/13/22

One of the most popular songs sung at the Passover Seder—the well-observed home-based ritual of the holiday—is “Dayainu,” which literally means “It would have been …

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Guest editorial

‘Dayainu’

Wishful thinking or true gratitude—a Passover thought

Posted

One of the most popular songs sung at the Passover Seder—the well-observed home-based ritual of the holiday—is “Dayainu,” which literally means “It would have been enough.” It is such a peppy melody that it is often played at Jewish weddings given its tempo, which makes it an easy song to dance to. Its lyrics clearly belong to another moment, but its beat is compelling. Orchestras less knowledgeable about Jewish music have borrowed it for their repertoires.

It is a song in which we express and acknowledge 15 favors accorded the Jewish People from the beginning of the Exodus from Egyptian slavery to our entry into the Land of Israel, 40 years later, followed by the building of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In each verse, we note our gratitude for that particular good fortune, even if it had stopped there and wasn’t followed by the next step in our nation-building.

An example of one such favor that appears in the middle of this musical exercise is, “If God had divided the sea for us, and had not made us pass through on dry land, it would have been sufficient—dayainu—enough for us.”

It is always a mystery to me as to whether this Passover hymn is prescriptive or descriptive. Is it a true statement of our appreciation of a process that could have stopped midstream, or is it a question of what we would have done and how we would have felt if the experience had been short-circuited?

A possible solution to this conundrum can be found in one of its other verses. “If God had brought us near to Mount Sinai, but had not given us the Torah, it would have been enough.” On the surface, this statement seems to be the ultimate tease. God brings us to the foot of Mount Sinai for that moment of great revelation of the Law, and then stops there and denies us the ultimate gift.

However, my great teacher, the late Rabbi Dr. Moshe David Tendler, offers a useful interpretation of the magnitude of this particular statement.

(Parenthetically, because Passover is a celebration of redemption, I might add that there is an important tradition in Jewish life to always give proper attribution to one’s source for an idea or thought. The Rabbis teach in that part of the Talmud that deals specifically with moral conduct, known as Pirkei Avot or the Ethics of the Fathers, [6:6], that “whoever makes a statement in the name of its original source, brings redemption to the world.”)

Rabbi Tendler explains this verse to mean that if God had only brought us to Sinai, where according to tradition as explained by the Biblical commentator Rashi we were “k’ish echad b’lev echad—as one people with one heart”—where we experienced a unique moment of unity as a People, but in the end, He did not reveal His holy writ to us, it would have been enough!

Why? Because the singular experience of our oneness and cohesive being at that time and place would in and of itself have been a landmark achievement and defining moment for the nascent Jewish People.

Dayainu as such is something of a litmus test for our society, when we too often cannot stop and appreciate what we have already accomplished, but instead live with deep dissatisfaction and disappointment about goals yet unmet or achievements not yet made. Imagine the power and strength we could have derived from each other during the pandemic, were we able to come together as “one person with one heart,” and state that even if all we have at this point is a vaccine, but no clear cure for COVID, and also the awareness that so many scientists are working in earnest to learn more about this viral menace, we would have been satisfied.

This is more than a matter of social grace and does not demand that we be a monolith. It is instead an ability to celebrate marker events and great developments wrought out of hard work and unceasing integrity, even if the job is not yet finished and we might have different ideas on the matter. Instead, conspiracy theories and derisive comments against the scientific community, to put it mildly, proliferated and prevailed. A social malaise overtook the best of us, when instead we might have taken succor and solace from the everyday advances being made to rid us of this disease.

“Dayainu,” then, is a heartfelt exercise and moral barometer. The Jewish People at today’s Passover Seder recreate the experience of release from slavery and the beginning of a long trek to the Promised Land, marked by the desire to appreciate signature accomplishments along the way to the ultimate goal and achievement.

It is a reading of our willingness to trust the process and rejoice in the journey, to even embrace the chaos that comes with incremental change. As such it sits at the top of the charts for Passover Seder musical hits and even bleeds over into other celebratory moments, where it might be sung out of context but never loses its grip on our faith, that there is yet more good to come and that the endgame is in sight.

Rabbi Lawrence Zierler is a South Fallsburg resident, a bioethicist and clinical counselor with a focus on elder care. He serves on various civic boards and committees and is a rabbi at large to the Sullivan County community. For more of his work, visit his blog at riverreporter.com/wavelengths.

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