Deconstructing Dayeinu

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Much of our Seder-night message to our children, mediated by the Haggadah, is forthright and clear. Some of it, though, is subtle and stealthy.

Like Dayeinu.

On the surface, it is a simple song – a recitation of events of Divine kindness over the course of Jewish history, from the Egyptian exodus until the Jewish arrival in the Holy Land – with the refrain “Dayeinu”: “It would have been enough for us.” It is a puzzling chorus, and everyone who has ever thought about Dayeinu has asked the obvious question.

Would it really have “been enough for us” had G-d not, say, split the Red Sea, trapping our ancestors between the water and the Egyptian army? Some take the approach that another miracle could have taken place to save the Jews, but that seems to weaken the import of the refrain. And then there are the other lines: “Had G-d not sustained us in the desert” – enough for us? “Had He not given us the Torah.” Enough? What are we saying?

Contending that we don’t really mean “Dayeinu” when we say it, that we only intend to declare how undeserving of all G-d’s kindnesses we are, is the sort of answer children view with immediate suspicion and make faces at.

One path, though, toward understanding Dayeinu might lie in remembering that a proven method of engaging the attention of a child – or even an ex-child – is to hide one’s message, leaving hints for its discovery. Could Dayeinu be hiding something significant –in fact, in plain sight?

Think of those images of objects or words that require time for the mind to comprehend, simply because the gestalt is not immediately absorbed; one aspect alone is perceived at first, although another element may be the key to the image’s meaning, and emerge only later.

Dayeinu may be precisely such a puzzle. And its solution might lie in the realization that one of the song’s recountings is in fact not followed by the refrain at all. Few people can immediately locate it, but it’s true: One of the events listed is pointedly not followed by the word “dayeinu.”

Can you find it? Or have the years of singing Dayeinu after a cup of wine obscured the obvious? You might want to ask a child, more able for the lack of experience. I’ll wait…

…Welcome back. You found it, of course: the very first phrase in the poem.

Dayeinu begins: “Had He taken us out of Egypt…” That phrase – and it alone – is never qualified with a “dayeinu.” It never says, “Had You not taken us out of Egypt it would have been enough for us. For, simply put, there then wouldn’t have been an “us.”

The exodus is, so to speak, a “non-negotiable.” It was the singular, crucial, transformative point in Jewish history, when we Jews became a people, with all the special interrelationship that peoplehood brings. Had Jewish history ended with starvation in the desert, or even at battle at an undisturbed Red Sea, it would have been, without doubt, a terrible tragedy, the cutting down of a people just born – but still, the cutting down of a people, born. The Jewish nation, the very purpose of creation (“For the sake of Israel,” as the Midrash comments on the first word of the Torah, “did G-d create the heavens and the earth”), would still have existed, albeit briefly.

And our nationhood, of course, is precisely what we celebrate on Passover. When the Torah recounts the wicked son’s question (Exodus12:26) it records that the Jews responded by bowing down in thanksgiving. What were they thankful for? The news that they would sire wicked descendants?

The Hassidic sage Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1856-1926), known as the “Shem MiShmuel,” explains that the very fact that the Torah considers the wicked son to be part of the Jewish People, someone who needs and merits a response, was the reason for the Jews’ joy. When we were merely a family of individuals, each member stood or fell on his own merits. Yishmael was Avraham’s son, and Esav was Yitzchak’s. But neither they nor their descendents merited to become parts of the Jewish People. That people was forged from Yaakov’s family, at the exodus from Egypt.

That now, after the exodus, even a “wicked son” would be considered a full member of the Jewish People indicated to our ancestors that something had radically changed since pre-Egyptian days. The people had become a nation. And that well merited an expression of thanksgiving.

And so the subtle message of Dayeinu may be precisely that: The sheer indispensability of the Exodus – its importance beyond even the magnitude of all the miracles that came to follow.

If so, then for centuries upon centuries, that sublime thought might have subtly accompanied the strains of spirited “Da-Da-yeinu’s,” ever so delicately yet ever so ably entering new generations of Jewish minds and hearts, without their owners necessarily even realizing the message they absorbed.

©Rabbi Avi Shafran


For this essay, other essays and more, please visit rabbiavishafran.com .

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