One of my favorite parts of the Passover seder is the singing that takes place after we finish eating. There are so many great, fun songs, from “Ehad Mi Yodeah” to “Chad Gadya.” Perhaps my favorite song is “Dayenu.” The words are fairly easy to sing in Hebrew, and the chorus is so catchy that even those who don’t know Hebrew can easily join in. But beyond its functionality, the content of Dayenu (literally “it would have been enough”) also carries a deep amount of wisdom.
Dayenu consists of 15 stanzas referencing different historical contexts the Israelites experienced, from slavery in Egypt to the building of the Temple in Israel. After each stanza, we sing the chorus, signifying that if this was the total of God’s miraculous intervention into the lives of the Israelites, it would have been sufficient.
One of the primary purposes of the Passover seder is to make us feel as if we personally experienced the exodus from Egypt and the redemption from slavery to freedom. This is no less true for the way we understand the Dayenu song. Dayenu provides a powerful contemporary hashkafah (outlook on life), a call to mindfulness about the way we currently lead our lives. We live in an era when capitalism is our state (and increasingly global) religion. Consumption is unfettered by any internal sense of restraint, from the amount of soda we can drink to how much money Wall Street executives can make. We live in a world where it is okay that the richest 85 people in the world have total wealth equal to that of the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet!
Dayenu reminds us that there is another way. Judaism offers an outlook on wealth, consumption, and sufficiency (sova) that is very counter-cultural. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 4:1, Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is rich? The one who is content with what one has.” Even more austere, the Talmud instructs: “An individual who can eat barley bread but eats wheat bread is guilty of transgressing the law of bal tashchit (unlawful waste). Rabbi Papa states: one who can drink beer but drinks wine instead is guilty of transgressing the law of bal tashchit.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 140b). Judaism is not, to be sure, an ascetic religion. We are encouraged to carve out occasions for excess, for enjoying the finer parts of living—on Shabbat, holidays, and other joyous occasions. But the wisdom of Judaism is that, if we want to experience delight on these special occasions, we also need moments of restraint. It is the juxtaposition of restraint and largess that creates a life of meaning.
Beyond the individual experience, we also are becoming increasingly aware of the global consequences of championing unbridled materialism over a sense of sufficiency. From income inequality to climate change, our refusal to entertain limits on what we do and how much we consume are wreaking destructive consequences. By returning to a sense of Dayenu, of thinking deeply about what is enough, we have the potential to change ourselves and our world. May we be blessed, on this Pesah and beyond, to replace the idolatry of consumption with an embrace of all that we have.
And if you have thoughts about the meaning of “dayenu” in your life today, of what it means to say we have “enough,” please add your voice to a Facebook and Twitter campaign we are running from now until Pesach. I’d love to hear what you have to say.
I was a stickler, emphasis on past tense. I complained about it a lot – why was everyone always late to everything? From social events to work commitments I found it rude and irritating – truth be told still do. It was, maybe even still is my biggest pet peeve, it drives me crazy.
Today the only difference is I am in violation, I am late…often. Usually, it is only a couple of minutes but still, someone’s time is their time. I asked a dear old friend today (when I was late meeting her for our weekly study session) “when did I become a late person?” She said, without missing a beat, “when you had kids.” I smiled and thought can I really blame them?
As a relatively new parent I still feel like a rookie but what I have learned is as a parent no matter what you do it never feels like enough. I try and beat them to the morning punch and prepare the night before, ahead of the game I think. Until the early morning comes and the hectic nature of those wee hours get the better of me. It might be the syrup someone purposely spilled because it seemed fun or simply a need for more time with being held. No matter the reason the minutes seem to tick away from me at a rapid pace—I have to be out the door at 7:45 at the latest and inevitably I am holding a teary eyed toddler at the door handing him off to the babysitter at 7:50 and I don’t even work full time, just a few part time gigs.
The kicker is really it is not enough. Not enough stories, not enough silliness on the floor, not enough patience for their antics or their challenging boundary pushing. There is not enough time in the world to give them what we want to give them or what we want to give our spouses let alone ourselves. The nature of our lives during these heady and overwhelming days of raising kids means falling short over and over again. And really this isn’t only a problem of parenting but of life and relationships, we Jews say “Dayeinu”— ”it would have been enough,” it should be enough but in this way life sometimes it is the reverse—”Lo Dayeinu” (it is not enough); not enough quality time, not enough energy spent on our relationships, not enough patience and growth.
So we are late for meetings, impatient with our children and tired with our spouses. If we try and create a spiritual practice out of our lives, out of parenting what are we to do if we want to elevate these very mundane challenges?
The rabbis teach that within the ark containing the tablets given to Moses containing the Ten Commandments was also the set Moses broke when he came down the mountain to find the people worshiping the golden calf. Why? Perhaps it is because the rabbis understand the nature of family life – we always carry with us the inevitable failures, the fallings short, the moments when we give in to our own pet peeves because we have no choice. We carry those with us alongside the triumphs.
In the end I will probably be late again tomorrow but I am hopeful even while carrying my broken tablets alongside my successes. In the meantime I carry the words of the Irish poet Samuel Beckett once wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” – tomorrow this Ima and Rabbi will try to fall again better.