The origins of Shabbat Hagadol (“The Great Sabbath”) are clouded in mystery. Not knowing how it began, medieval Jews thought the original term had been Shabbat Hahagada, “The Sabbath of the Haggada,” because they spent the day reviewing the seder service for use later in the week. So I am reviewing, and have gotten as far as “Dayenu.” We sing it, I think, because if we just read it, we might concentrate on its words, which are enough to stop us in our tracks.
Dayenu means “It would have been enough.” We say, for instance, “If God had only brought us to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah: Dayenu.” But do we honestly believe we would have been satisfied if God had said, “Look folks, I have a Torah up there, but you can’t have it; enjoy the view.”
Another example: “If God had split the sea for us but not led us through it on dry land: Dayenu.” Really? What good would the split sea have been if we had been restrained on shore for the Egyptians to kill us? We should be saying “lo dayenu.” Any single step toward freedom would not have been enough. Only the entire thing is dayenu. Less would have been a teaser.
The usual explanation for calling each step “enough” is that we were unworthy of anything more. The Italian commentator Shibbolei Haleket is typical. God took us from Egypt, he says, the way a premature baby is rescued from its mother’s womb — unready for life outside, but taken out anyway and nurtured until it appreciates what it already has. So, too, we were saved prematurely, experiencing God’s gracious deliverance stage by stage and expected to demonstrate appreciation at each one before receiving more. Dayenu.
But when is it normal to plead, “Enough”? Not when we don’t deserve something, but when we don’t really want it. It is as if, at each step, we pleaded, “Enough already! Please, God, no more.”
“Dayenu” should be read alongside the well-known midrashim that emphasize how little Israel wanted the responsibility of being a chosen people. God, we are told, first offered Torah to other nations, who refused it altogether. But we agreed to shoulder its burden only after God lifted Mount Sinai over our heads and threatened us with extinction otherwise.
Looking back, we might find good reason to have been wary. Given the task of Torah and the history of being Jewish, we can well imagine our ancestors pleading, “Enough already. Who needs being chosen?” Every single redemptive step implies further obligation. Wouldn’t just a little obligation have been enough?
We know how it ends. We did not short-circuit salvation. God did it all, and so must we.
Because we were taken from Egypt, we must deliver others from servitude.
Because God brought judgment upon their idols, we must speak out against today’s forms of idolatry.
Because God fed us in the wilderness, we must feed others in the deserts of their lives.
Because God gave us Torah, we must study it, know it, live by it.
Because God brought us to our land, we must never be without it.
Because God built a Temple for atonement, we must admit our sins.
It goes on and on. Do we really need all this? The answer, of course, is we do — and more besides. The traditional “Dayenu” ends with establishing the Temple, but Jewish history didn’t stop there.
Early Reform Jews added these lines to their Haggada.
“If God had only sent us prophets of truth, dayenu; if God had only made us a holy people, dayenu.”
Because God sent us prophets, we must live a prophetic life: ethically (not gouging the poor, for instance) and spiritually (keeping faith with the promise of a better time to come). Because we are a holy people, we must emulate God: visiting the sick, showing compassion, insisting on justice.
We should add our own lines. After centuries of yearning, we have been returned to Eretz Yisrael. At my seder, we sing, “Ilu hechezireinu el artzeinu, dayenu.” “If God had only returned us to our land, dayenu.” Because we have reclaimed our Land, we must settle it, visit it, support it, and make it the sacred home it was meant to be.
Passover lets us say dayenu, as long as we don’t really mean it. We are in history for the long run. The seder commits us to see it through, come what may.