We are, none of us, perfect. We are, each of us, flawed and frail, having been raised by imperfect people, taught by imperfect teachers, part of imperfect and flawed institutions — how could we not be? On top of the normal existential challenges of being human and being Jewish, these last several years have piled unique burdens on us all: fear of contagion and disease; extreme isolation and loneliness; businesses and agencies struggling to reinvent themselves and many, many of them closing entirely. Domestically we have witnessed extreme partisanship unlike any we have ever seen, and globally we all face the terrifying prospect of runaway climate change. More recently, the world has witnessed the eruption of a Russian assault against Ukraine that rumbles with threats to all eastern Europe and the risk of nuclear conflict for the world.
These have been particularly brutal times.
And yet, there are also moments where the light shines so intensely, so truly, that had we lived only for those moments, our lives would be more than justified. Passover brings with it the timely and timeless reminder that the robust affirmation of gratitude, training ourselves to notice and articulate the blessings, remains a powerful antidote to despair, isolation, tyranny and terror.
The Hebrew word for Egypt, “Mitzrayim,” means “narrow place.” In the middle of the Seder’s tale of brutal slavery and the horrendous oppression our ancestors endured, Jewish tradition asks us to lift our gaze above the narrow, constricted world of slavery, to elevate our present through transformative affirmations of gratitude and hope.
It all happens in one of the Seder’s most popular songs, “Dayenu.” Its fifteen stanzas correspond to fifteen elements (corresponding to the 15 steps in the Temple on which the Levites and pilgrims would chant the 15 psalms of ascent (Psalm 120 – 134). The very words plant us in the center of Jerusalem, on Zion’s hill.
These psalms are known as “Ma’alot” songs.
It’s no coincidence that the opening refrain of “Dayenu” is “How many acts of kindness (Ma’alot) has God performed for us.” For each new occasion …”Dayenu” asks us to notice, to acknowledge, to thank out loud.
It’s no coincidence that the opening refrain of “Dayenu” is “How many acts of kindness (Ma’alot) has God performed for us.” For each new occasion — taking us out of Mitzrayim, dividing the sea, feeding us for 40 years, giving us Shabbat, bringing us to Sinai, giving us Torah, bringing us to the Land of Israel — “Dayenu” asks us to notice, to acknowledge, to thank out loud.
Especially now, in the latter days of COVID, as the world mobilizes to resist the tyranny of Vladimir Putin, as western democracies struggle to slow down climate change and work to restore civil dialogue, it is more important than ever to notice the occasions, large and small, when we know we are blessed.
Those moments are “Dayenu” moments—moments in which our ancestors taught us to say, “Had it only been for this moment, dayenu, it would have been enough.” Reb Yechiel Michael, the author of the “Likkutim Yekarim,” writes: “There are times when you are in an ordinary state of mind, and you feel you cannot draw near to God. But then in an instant, the light of your soul will be kindled, and you will go up to the highest world. You are like one who has been given a ladder. The light that shines in you is a gift from above.”
People who acknowledge blessing can tap into a resilient strength they will need for tomorrow’s challenges. We know the challenges and opportunities are coming. Can we focus on the blessings and the light needed to rise to meet them with courage?
We all have such moments, and our task as Jews, our task as people who love God and Torah, is to train ourselves to notice these moments. We do so to fortify ourselves for the struggles ahead. People who acknowledge blessing can tap into a resilient strength they will need for tomorrow’s challenges. We know the challenges and opportunities are coming. Can we focus on the blessings and the light needed to rise to meet them with courage?
The Blessings That Grow from Limits
One of the sources of blessing and light, paradoxically, are the limits themselves. We tend to obsess about the constraints imposed by limits without noticing how sometimes having fewer options and possibilities permits us to focus finally on what matters most, what gets lost in the glitter and busyness of the everyday. This renewed clarity flows from the imposed limits, in life as it does in ritual.
One of the sources of blessing and light, paradoxically, are the limits themselves.
When I think back to pre-COVID days, I think of lives filled with social obligations and professional appointments. My rabbinic life involved frequent flights to communities around North America, Europe, and Israel. I loved (and love) those encounters, but it took COVID forcing me to shelter at home to realize how much I also love spending time with my wife, my kids, my family, my garden. Staying home gave me the gift of an hour-and-a-half of what used to be commute time. My daily prayer life improved, my exercise became more extensive and more regular. The constraints of the pandemic forced me to recenter and refocus. It allowed me to reclaim lost parts of myself, marginalized priorities now returned to center stage.
Had the virus only reduced my travel, but not let me reconnect with loved ones, “Dayenu”!
Passover offers other poignant examples of the blessings that flow from narrow places. This is evident in our telling of the story and in the beautiful mitzvot of the festival.
Think, for a moment, of the instant when the Children of Israel reached the sea. Facing threatening waves cresting before them, surrounded by pharaoh’s murderous armies catching up from behind, can anyone doubt that the extent of their gratitude — their “Dayenu” moment — rocketed out of the despair and panic they had to endure? So focused (and relieved) are they that they start to dance and sing as soon as they reach dry land on the other side.
Had the sea split and they had not been led across on dry land, “Dayenu”!
Recall the constraints that give the Seder meal its shape: no leavened bread on the table or in the house. That encompassing restriction birthed all the special foods for which Passover is known, starting with the ubiquitous matzah, and blossoming out in entire cookbooks of matzah-inspired foods for every palate. We are told we cannot eat after we distribute the fragments of the Afikomen, giving shape to the end of the Seder rituals. And we are mandated a series of unusual food items as symbols of the evening and our liberation, spawning a stunning diversity of beautiful Seder plates.
Had we gathered with loved ones to retell the tale and not inherited an international collection of distinctive foods, “Dayenu”!
As with the process of evolution, where the limits that life has to confront generate the very adaptations that make diverse and complex life possible, so it is that the very constraints of COVID, on the one hand, and Passover, on the other, generate so much of the silver lining that has surprised us along the way.
This is so even when we have been unhappy with the constraints, and sometimes especially when we’re dissatisfied.
The Sacred Role of Dissatisfaction
One of the challenges in discussing “Dayenu” moments is that it is easy, particularly for a rabbi, to fail to give due recognition to the sacred role of dissatisfaction. I am not saying that we should walk around all the time “Dayenu”-ing everything that happens. There are times when discontent is the call of the hour and the command of God. To be tolerant of the indifference, laziness and greed that is clogging and soiling our planet’s ability to sustain life is not only a mistake; it is a sin. To be selfishly content in a world of injustice, of Putin’s invasion, of the continuing threat of COVID, a world of starvation and poverty, is not a mark of spiritual evolution; it is a sin.
Knowing our predilection for indifference and false bravado, the poet Louis Untermeyer offered the prayer:
Ever insurgent let me be,
Make me more daring than devout;
From sleek contentment keep me free
And fill me with a buoyant doubt.
There is a sacred role for buoyant doubt, even as a part of this year’s “Dayenu” songs.
What I am speaking of is a higher contentment that comes to us as a gift, an act of liberation from the consuming addictions of ambition and adulation, wealth, and fame. That is a worthy “Dayenu.”
What I am speaking of is a higher contentment that comes to us as a gift, an act of liberation from the consuming addictions of ambition and adulation, wealth, and fame. That is a worthy “Dayenu.” That is the moment we are fully aware of the work that yet needs to be done. We simultaneously hold on to the twin poles of “There’s work to be done!” and “It’s enough! I do not need anything else.” Such a “Dayenu” reflects a transformative blend of joy and contentment. And here I caution: In an age in which we are told that spirituality requires constant work, in my life, “Dayenu” moments require enormous prior preparation, but when the moments come, they come unanticipated, effortlessly, and uninvited. They require only openness. As Rabbi Abraham Abulafia writes in “Chayyei Ha-Olam Ha-Ba”: “Rejoice in what you have and know that God loves you.”
Rejoicing in love doesn’t take work. It simply takes not fighting so hard. The story is told of the spiritual seeker who spent every day of life running toward God. Finally at the Gates of Paradise, the seeker says: “Ribbono Shel Olam! I spent my entire life running after you; why did I never find you?” And God says: “I was trying to catch up with you the whole time.” The moment of “Dayenu” is a gift. It requires nothing more than standing still and being open, noticing what has been given to us as an act of love. It is not a prize to be won by aggressive behavior, by greater striving, but simply a willingness to experience joy and to love. As Shlomo ibn Gabirol writes in his “Tikkun Middot Ha-Nefesh,” “The fruit of contentment is tranquility. The greatest riches are contentment and patience.”
Can we train ourselves in this year of COVID and invasion to also cultivate contentment, resolve and patience? Can we teach ourselves to recognize the pure hesed that is ours at this moment and at every moment? Can we cultivate hearts of wonder and joy, aware of the privileges that are ours without our having earned them? Can we discipline our ability to love freely and to forgive freely those whose lives we share? Can we celebrate our own greatness? Love our own beauty? And because we are able to love ourselves with hesed, with “Dayenu”, we must muster the energy it takes to do the work of teshuvah, to grow toward the light; and because we love and forgive ourselves, then to be able to turn to those around us and also love them and fight for them? Can we open our hearts to feel this day, this moment, as “Dayenu”?
We stand on the brink of a momentous time, an opportunity to energize our communities, to revitalize democracy, to fight for survival and for peace.
It all begins with awareness, with noticing all that we have, with gratitude. It is an unspeakable privilege to be alive here, now.
We stand on the brink of a momentous time, an opportunity to energize our communities, to revitalize democracy, to fight for survival and for peace. And it all begins with awareness, with noticing all that we have, with gratitude. It is an unspeakable privilege to be alive here, now.
The poet e.e. Cummings puts these “Dayenu” sentiments into words better than mine:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
“and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)”
how should tasting, touching hearing seeing
breathing any – lifted from the no
of all nothing – human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
I bless us all at this season of freedom with ears open to hearing, with eyes open to seeing, with hearts open to love and forgiveness and growth and learning. I bless us all, that when we step into our homes and schools and workplaces, look at our families, colleagues and communities, when we have the privilege to study a little Torah, to observe a mitzvah, to commune with nature or walk the streets of Jerusalem that we are able to exclaim, “dayenu.”
I bless us all that in in our homes and in our social life, in our commitment to making the world a place of wholeness and healing and inclusion, that we create such moments for ourselves and for others, such that this world reveals itself to be a great cosmic chorus of “”Dayenu,” and we are the singers in the choir.
Bradley Shavit Artson, a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal, is Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University. He is also Dean of the Zecharias Frankel College, training Masorti/Conservative rabbis for Europe.