The singing of Dayenu is my favorite moment of the Seder, bar none. That’s partly because I grew up in a musical family, where my father, a cantor, always turned this song into a joyous, rollicking production number. Cantor Jeff Klepper, in listening to the version my dad recorded in his album back in the ‘60s, called it “A Dayenu for the Ages,” reflecting on it’s “Hava Negila” like kitsch. Now we didn’t sing it THAT way at our Seders, mind you, but it wasn’t far off.
But Dayenu’s power stems not only from the music. Its meaning is a powerful reminder of what keeps bringing us back to the Seder table, year after year. In fact, I’d go as far as to state that, in our day and age, one has not fulfilled the Seder obligation without the singing of Dayenu. Why has Dayenu’s legend grown so much, especially more recently?
Let’s look at what some of my favorite haggadahs have to say about Dayenu.
The Polychrome Haggadah, which color codes each line to show how the haggadah has evolved over the ages, shows us biblical and rabbinic roots for the fifteen steps of the song – fifteen stages of the journey from slavery to freedom. As Ron Wolfson’s Passover Seder guide reminds us, these steps reflect the fifteen steps that led up to the temple (and the fifteen Psalms dedicated to those steps). The theology of the prayer is that any one of these steps would have been sufficient. Of course that’s not true. Had we gotten out of Egypt but never entered the Land of Israel, we would be, well, wandering African refugees in the Sinai, and we know how that works out. But we have to train ourselves to be grateful each step of the way, so that we’re not always waiting simply for the ultimate payoff.
The Scholar’s Haggadah shows that there are Sephardic, Ashkenazic and Yemenite variants of those steps, one having to do with the amount of booty we got from the Egyptians (I guess one pyramid would have been enough). The Schechter Haggadah, a scholarly masterpiece, traces the origin of the song, which we don’t see its current form until about the 9th century. There are parallels to a medieval Christian Good Friday poem and to some biblical sources, like Psalm 78, but they, for the most part, harp on how ungrateful Israel was in the wilderness, not on their gratitude.
And gives us a clue as to why Dayenu is so powerful. It plays on the tension that exists within everyone of us, between dissatisfaction and its opposite. This song is ultimately about Jewish civilization and its discontents.
Noam Zion’s “A Different Night” contains an alternative Dayenu, something that has become widespread in contemporary haggadahs, since the original song leaves us off at the rise of the first temple. Lots of Dayenu moments have happened since then. This modern version, by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, focuses on the miracle of Israel.
There have been lots of “Oy-Veynu” moments too, which are recalled, along with some alternate Dayenu versions, in the Art Waskow classic of the ‘80s, the Shalom Seders, with versions focusing on Arab – Israeli peace efforts, civil rights and nuclear proliferation. How much progress we’ve made since then in these areas is a matter of speculation.
The Shalom Seder is recalled in My People’s Passover Haggadah, a comprehensive collection of commentaries edited by Lawrence Hoffman. In the feminist commentary to Dayenu (p.70 of Vol. 2) Wendy Zierler notes that most feminist haggadahs have adopted a “not satisfied” “lo dayenu” mode, much like the Israelites in the wilderness, for whom nothing was enough, even the promise of entry into their new homeland. For in stark contrast to the Dayenu we read, the Israelites were chronic kvetchers. All they could recall about their dark days in Egypt was how delicious and plentiful the leeks and green onions were.
Which brings us to the pleasant Afghan custom of beating fellow Seder goers with green onion stalks, in memory of that kvetching, in “A Different Night.” And then, contrast that with the Holistic Haggadah’s asking, “If tomorrow were to be the last day of your life, would you be able to praise God for all you’ve received up until now?”
This fundamental tension between complaint and gratitude is one of the enduring struggles of the Jewish psyche, from then until now. “What have you done for me lately” might have begun with Israelites calling out God under the scorching Sinai sky, but it’s no less prevalent now in every Jewish household, between parents and children, between partners, friends, teachers and students and possibly, so I’m told, between congregants and rabbis. Jews love complaining – but the word “Jew” actually comes from the Hebrew root for gratitude. Hence the tension.
Perhaps the purpose of Dayenu is to acknowledge our dark side and then to try to inch us closer to the light. Just as the Seder shifts us from slavery mode toward freedom, so does it bring us from alienation toward appreciation, from Debbie Downer to Seven Habits of Grateful People.
In Levitt and Strassfeld’s “A Night of Questions”, Shelia Peltz Weinberg sets us straight:
Dayenu signifies deep acceptance and gratitude. We acknowledge the present moment. In the affirmation of dayenu, we are fully present to the preciousness of each act of redemption and care – dividing the sea, leading us across, caring for us in the desert…we receive each moment with love. This acceptance allows us to move to the next moment and receive the waiting gift. When we greet each moment with conditions, judgments and expectations – “well, this isn’t quite where we need to be” or “wait a second, this is not what we were promised” or “hey, what’s coming next?” – our expectations keep us tense. We are not free. We are not available to receive the next moment. Our fantasies about the past and our desire to control the future cut us off from the wonders of this moment. They shut us in a prison of disappointment and suffering. Dayenu is a great liberator. It is a jolt into the presence of awe, compassion, attention, and freedom.
In the end, what Dayenu means to you and to those at your table ,is what matters most. A great example is this personal essay by Sara Greenberg, “The Real Meaning of Dayenu.” Writing about her recently departed grandmother, she states:
My grandmother never stopped learning. She never stopped cooking. She never had enough of life. We never had enough of her. But she understood the true meaning of Dayenu.
“It would have been enough” does not give us an excuse to be complacent. It does not give us an excuse to stop learning, to stop improving. It does not mean that we should be satisfied with the current state of affairs.
Instead, Dayenu means that we should take a moment to celebrate and appreciate each step of our personal and collective journey as if it were enough, but then continue on. Dayenu is not about being satisfied with what we have, it’s about feeling the fullness of the incomplete and knowing we must push on.
Next year, I hope my family can return to the seder table, with my grandmother in mind, and chant Dayenu louder than ever before. It is what she would want.
And, in the words of the online Parnes Haggadah,
What does this mean, “Dayenu–it would have been enough”? Surely no one of these would indeed have been enough for us. Dayenu means to celebrate each step toward freedom as if it
were enough, then to start out on the next step. Dayenu means that if we reject each step because it is not the whole liberation, we will never be able to achieve the whole liberation.
Dayenu means to sing each verse as if it were the whole song–and then sing the next verse!
The Hebrew word “Dayenu” means “It would have been enough,” and we consider it an exclamation of cup-runneth-over satisfaction. We’d have been completely satisfied with the Exodus, but no, God also gave us the Torah…and the land of Israel…and…and the iPod too! What more could we ask for!
But before we complete the word “Dayenu,” we always begin with “Dai.” “Dai,” which in Hebrew conveys precisely the opposite meaning, means, “Enough, already! Get off my back! I can’t take it anymore!” In Israel you’ll hear “Dai” much more often than “Dayenu,” on just about every bus, or any time anyone turns on the news.
What makes the song such a puzzlement is that it only takes a fraction of a breath for a person to make the long, difficult journey from “Dai” to “Dayenu.” It doesn’t have to take years of therapy or even a cold slap in the face. Simply by moving forward one syllable, you can make the journey from being a hopeless cynic, distraught by the world’s endless frustrations, to being eternally grateful for every little speck of goodness that happens to us.
It’s at that moment that we realize just how dependent we are on the whims of chance, and how that mere fact places us all on the same boat.
That’s why we have to see it all, shake our heads, and simply say, “Dayenu.” We’re all on that same path crossing the Red Sea. Some are on the bus, some on a bike, some at Harvard and some at the school of hard knocks. Some are unemployed this week, others will be next week. It’s enough to make us all want to throw up our hands and yell “Dai!!!!”
But instead, we’ll knock back four cups and sing “Dayenu.”
…And be glad to be alive, be sitting with family around the table…
So let’s start singing!