A Meditation on “Dayenu”

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A hand holding green onions/scallions.

Jews in Iran and Afghanistan hit each other with bundles of green onions during the Seder song 'Dayenu' to remember the Jewish people's yearning for food during exile from Egypt. Credit: CreativeCommons / Rachel Barenblat.

Ever since I could remember, I loved Passover Seders, especially the song, “Dayenu,” whatever it might mean. Perhaps the story of freedom from slavery appealed to me as a child “enslaved” by parental and school authority. When I was old enough to read the English translation, “It Would Suffice Us,” and followed along stanza by stanza, I simply recognized gratitude for all the benefits God gave to the Israelites, from being freed of their Egyptian servitude to their regaining the Promised Land.
It wasn’t til I was much older, in my late teens and twenties, that I began to recognize the negative implications in the song: that we are grateful for every boon despite all that might not have been granted! After being grateful for God’s rescuing us from slavery in Egypt, the chorus reaffirms that each gift, in turn, would have been enough: “If we had ONLY been granted freedom [and nothing more], it would suffice us.” As each stanza eliminates one boon after another, leaving us still grateful, I realized that the only thing left to be grateful for was the most basic reason for celebrating the holiday: the escape from Egypt. What? Still be grateful for not returning to the Promised Land? Even be grateful if we had never received the Torah, our most sacred core? Or the Sabbath, our most sacred holiday? In short, the song is telling us to be grateful if we had no Jewish identity whatsoever! So why, indeed, should we still be grateful?
I tried to look up the history of the song for possible interpretations to shed some light on it. Surely, there must be some Rabbinical commentary somewhere, even if that song was not in the Torah, but somehow like a Talmudic commentary itself on the Exodus. All I found online was in Wikipedia:

The song is about being grateful to God for all of the gifts he gave the Jewish people, such as taking them out of slavery, giving them the Torah and Shabbat, and had God only given one of the gifts, it would have still been enough. This is to show much greater appreciation for all of them as a whole. The song appears in the haggadah after the telling of the story of the exodus and just before the explanation of Passover, matzah and the maror. . . . History: Over a thousand years old, in first Medieval Haggadah.

Even if the cumulative value magnifies gratitude, a minimal gratitude still remains.
Regardless of what other sources might have said, I pondered it for myself for years, seeking some answer to why we should be grateful if God had never given us the Torah, the Sabbath, or brought us back to our Land – all that distinguishes us as a people with a specific culture and belief system. In short, if Jews should be grateful for anything more fundamental than our identity as “Chosen” and claim on the Land, what is it?
Eventually my answer was: Life itself, for being created at all – and our freedom. The song leads Jews away from claiming to be more special than other peoples, only “chosen” in the sense that they have their own cultural path to human inner truth and liberation, just as every other people is “chosen” with a different path leading to the same basic, human realization. The implication is that God can then be interpreted as the universal creator of all, the very principle of creation (and destruction) as a continuing process, not just an ethnic, tribal god or “idol” of specific attributes according to dogmas. If God “chose” us in any sense, it is to realize the value of life and freedom for all humanity, and indeed, the miracle of creation altogether.
The last freedom, then, is ultimately a way out of being in bondage to the quirks of our cultures and instead, embracing our common humanity by understanding our ethnic weaknesses and foibles as well as our special talents and wisdom as a given people through our shared history and geography. This is only possible through the knowledge of other peoples and appreciation for how they see us.
Seeing beyond our identity as a people implies that no matter how our culture identifies itself and us, every individual in every culture is also at bottom identity-less, or at least open to that of the other – like an actor who can suspend his own to assume another’s identity by searching within to find an analogous chord, according to the Stanislavsky Method of acting. Cross-cultural empathy exists; multi-cultural fusion in the arts exists, and is a great source of innovation. If we can imagine ourselves like a newborn baby gazing on the world with nameless wonder, unable to name what it perceives, much less name itself, we could then marvel at how society imprints us, shaping a brain that can formulate abstract, symbolic thinking in languages to differentiate things and ourselves from one another. This state of direct perception, of experiencing the miracle of life relatively unfiltered through language and culture, may be what Jesus meant by saying that only when we are like little children in a state of wordless wonder can we enter the kingdom of Heaven or a state of Grace.
Perhaps wordless wonder is why God’s name in Judaism is unpronounceable, ineffable. God cannot be directly named, nor represented by any idol or image, not even the name attributed, “Jehovah,” or “Yaweh,” can be pronounced, but only abbreviated and referred to indirectly as the generic word “G-d,” (written that way to indicate ineffable unpronounceability), or “Lord,” or other substitute, like “Creator.” This nameslessness is borne out in Torah passage where Moses asks the Voice in the burning bush WHO is sending him to the Pharoah of Egypt to “let His people go.” The Voice answers, “I am what I am,” but more accurately translated, “I will be what I will be” [Exodus 3.14], or pehaps, “the ever-becoming present.” So if we seek the “name” to call God, which has been represented by “Yaweh” or “Jehovah,” (or perhaps “Y’hoveh,” which in Hebrew would literally mean, “the present will be”), we have no fixed name but only an eternal and thus unpronounceable sound continuing into eternity, perhaps like the continuous sound of “Ommmmmmm. . .” projected forever. That which is ever-evolving can never be defined, pinned down.
So if God is imageless, and we are made in his image, as the Torah says in Genesis that God created Adam “in His own image,” then at bottom, every individual self must be equally imageless, unpronounceable, without definition. Thus having a “self-image” or “ethnic image” falls away from the ultimate state of mind and heart, the pinnacle of freedom, to be grateful for. Or as the Sufis say, “In the world, but not of it.”
So to worship any image, especially self or ethnic image, or whatever else one may worship, like money, power, beauty, fame, all the ego-attachments we are heir to, is to miss the ultimate freedom: gratitude for simply being and having the ability to evolve. Thus Passover, as the holiday of freedom, includes this song, “Dayenu,” representing the ultimate freedom of consciousness we can attain, by rising above everything that defines us and locks us into a stagnant image as a people, or as individuals trapped in social identities.
If “Dayenu” expresses the heart of Judaism, then it is the freedom of non-attachment to any dogma, paradoxically, not even the Torah, the Commandments, or the Promised Land – just simple gratitude for being created, which leads us to embrace the processes of creation that brought us and all living creatures into being.
To be grateful for our inner liberation encompasses gratitude for our outer situation as well. If we are glad to have been created, we are also glad not to have been destroyed or enslaved. The song still celebrates our literal outer freedom from others who enslaved us. But that creates a contrary pull between universal merging with others, yet sometimes situational enmity toward them. So the Seder reminds us of our inner bond with our enemies by having us remove ten drops from our wine, diminishing our joy out of compassion for their suffering or destruction. It suggests that before we can hope to be truly free within, we must transcend any hatred we bear others for their enslavement to whatever causes them to violate us.
As Rabbi Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be?” adding, “But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?” About two hundred years later, Jesus enunciated a similar principle: “Love thy neighbor as thyself, ” both variations on the Golden Rule, whether stated negatively as Rabbi Hillel also said: “Do not to others as you would not have them do to you,” or positively as Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Similarly, the Hindu principle of “Ahimsa,” translates as “harmlessness” to all, including oneself. A variation is Shakespeare’s wisdom from the mouth of an otherwise foolish character, Polonius, who advises his son Laertes, “This above all – to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man” [Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78-82].
It also follows that allowing others to deny your rights and means of survival, from your exaggerated altruism, is as wrong as denying them theirs. So we must defend our existence and find a way to deny neither ourselves nor our perceived enemies of a rightful place of survival and flourishing – theirs as well as ours. Thus, Dayenu requires us to find a path of mutual enhancement through liberation of the mind from its self/ethnic-centered attachments. That path is very hard to achieve, given the universal attachments to self, ethnic identities, and history. One such path might be the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, a recognition of separate cultural and national paths to the same thing – to which Jews should say to whatever is their fair share of the Land, “Dayenu,” and do all we can to enable our Palestinian counterparts to do likewise.
Endless sources of Dayenu to be grateful for! The mind’s gratitude can be ever ongoing . . . leaving a “wake” of “circles” or endless waves, as Ralph Waldo Emerson posits in his essay, “Circles,” whereby whatever reaches of thought the mind takes can always be surpassed by the next reach.
Or, one may go in reverse, retracing one’s circles of gratitude to strip attainments away by the song’s process of elimination, down to the last boon. For example, after losing so much physical function, what remains Stephen Hawking’s ultimate boon to be thankful for? He says it is Consciousness, Mind, and within it Freedom of the mind to still think and create. Recognizing one’s losses and limitations – thus how limited others are as well – opens the heart to love and compassion. Before our physical deterioration recycles our elements back into nature, and while we have the last vestiges of our own memory, contemplation of our connection with all creation is the last Dayenu left.