Gary Epstein
And now for something completely different . . .

Would It Really Have Been Sufficient?


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I am no Rabbi. But like all of us, I am commanded to elaborate on the story of the Exodus. And, with your kind indulgence, let me share an interpretation of one of the two most well-known passages in the Haggadah, because I think it provides a contemporary lesson during these difficult times.

But if I claim that there are two most well-known passages, I guess it behooves me to identify the first, before I discuss the second. The first is, of course, the “four” questions, but I will not speak of those because I object to the nomenclature. There are no four questions. There is one question, followed by four illustrative examples.  Take a look. You will see. Properly punctuated, there should be only one question mark. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The rest simply are simply declarative sentences that describe ways in which the night is different, two having to do with the joyful, freedom-loving aspect of the holiday, and two having to do with the recollections of suffering that are supposed to accompany them.

Having exposed this cruel age-old deception of children, I will move to a more straightforward part of the ceremony, Dayenu–”it would have been sufficient.”

This is a festive, rollicking song. In some communities people keep time by running around the table and beating each other with scallions. Is this a great religion or what?

You all know the song, or poem: It would have been sufficient had God taken us out of Egypt and not provided for us in the desert, or if He had given us the manna but not the Shabbos, or brought us to Sinai but not given us the Torah. There are many, many explanations relating to the manner in which the sufficiency of the previous step would have sufficed, e.g., though we were not to receive the Torah, even being in the vicinity of Mt. Sinai would have been a remarkable, ennobling gift, as just entry into a perfume store is a pleasant experience.

There is only one problem.

It’s not true.

Clearly, no single one of these steps would have been sufficient to complete the transition from slavery to redemption, or from oppressed tribes to a nation, or from pagan idolaters to a religious community. To be sure, each step was an act of divine beneficence, and if “dayenu” means that it was more than we deserved, that makes sense.

But sufficient? Would any of them, taken alone, have been enough for us to celebrate this holiday of freedom and transcendence? Would any of these, taken alone, have been sufficient to build a nation? Without Shabbos? Without the Torah? Without the Beis Hamikdash? Would it really have been sufficient if He had taken us to the desert and left us there to fend for ourselves? Or if He had brought us to the sea and not ushered us through to safety? The physical and spiritual redemption we experienced required each and every one of the 15 steps and no single one or subgroup of them would, in any sense, have been sufficient.

On the contrary. Each of them was necessary, but not sufficient. The process would have been deficient in every way that is meaningful had it stopped before the end.

Imagine. No Shabbos? No Torah? No Promised Land? No Beit Hamikdash?

Dayenu? Really?

Let us explore another possibility. Let us posit that the entire service of the seder has one objective: to get the participants to the point that we see ourselves as having departed the slavery of Egypt. It is a psychodrama, in which each component is designed to make the participant re-experience the slavery and the redemption.  If successful, the participant will be able to pronounce the blessing on the redemption–גאל ישראל–Blessed is the Redeemer of Israel–as a personal recipient of God’s generosity and grace. We are among the redeemed.

And, at that point, Jewish law, the halacha, requires one, thus blessed, to recite the Hallel, to give praise for his or her own deliverance.

Perhaps “Dayenu” refers to that obligation to recite Hallel. Had God taken us out of slavery, but not proceeded to the next step, that still would have been a miracle sufficient to necessitate the religious obligation of praising God by saying Hallel.  Had He given us the manna, that too, alone, would have been a sufficient miracle to require the recitation of Hallel. Ditto Shabbos. Ditto the splitting of the sea. Each of them would have been a miracle that constituted sufficient cause to say Hallel. Dayenu.

And, על אחת כמה וכמה, how much more so, when we are the beneficiaries of all 15 of the listed miracles? 

As support for the suggestion, see what the Haggadah requires us to say immediately after the recitation of the 15 miracles.

  1. The three necessary halachic components of the passover ritual: Pesach, Matzo, and Maror.
  2. The statement, noted above, that each of us is required to view himself or herself as having left Egypt.
  3. The resultant obligation upon us to say Hallel.

Then we make the blessing on the redemption–גאל ישראל– as if, or as, we ourselves were redeemed,  and . . . we start to say Hallel.

To be sure, the redemption would not be complete until the land was conquered and the Beis Hamikdash was built. But each act of grace by God was to be appreciated, for even if it alone was not sufficient to effect redemption, it was sufficient to require us to say Hallel.

This is such a valuable lesson for us today. The obligation of הכרת הטוב does not arise only at the end of the process. Each and every day, there are miracles for which to be thankful. Caught in a terrifying world where uncertainty appears to be the quotidian reality, we are nevertheless obligated to pause, consider our blessings, and give thanks, knowing full well that we are in a process that is not yet complete.

That process will go forward to its final purpose. We hope and pray to witness the final redemption and the rebuilding of the בית הבחירה. But until then, we will celebrate and be grateful for every intermediate step along the way, confident that the plan is in good hands.

Chag Sameach.

About the Author
Gary Epstein is a retired teacher and lawyer residing in Modi'in, Israel. He was formerly the Head of the Global Corporate and Securities Department of Greenberg Traurig, a global law firm with an office in Tel Aviv, which he founded and of which he was the first Managing Partner. He and his wife Ahuva are blessed with18 grandchildren, ka"h, all of whom he believes are well above average. He currently does nothing. He believes he does it well.
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