One of the best-known parts of the Seder is certainly one of the most unusual: the song or prayer called “Dayyeinu.” It is perhaps the best known of all Passover melodies.
This is the song that expresses thanks to God for each of the various steps of the process of the Exodus from Egypt. After each step, we say “Dayyeinu - It would have been enough for us.” “If God had taken us out of Egypt, but not imposed justice upon the Egyptians - It would have been enough for us. If God had given us the Mannah in the desert, but not given us the gift of Shabbat, it would have been enough for us.” Etc.
The problem is that some of the lines of Dayyeinu just seem completely illogical.
For example, I think of the line, “If God had split the Red Sea for us, but not led us through on dry land, Dayyeinu. It would have been enough for us.” Really now! I’m not sure that would have been quite enough for me. To have the opportunity to see this dramatic miracle - the splitting of the Red Sea - but not to actually cross the sea. I imagine that would have been somewhat disappointing. Somewhat insufficient.
Then again, perhaps a line such as this highlights the very counter-intuitive nature of the attitude expressed in Dayyeinu. It may seem like one of the simplest of all Passover songs – and it is a perennial hit with the toddlers and pre-schoolers in our community! - but like most of Jewish liturgy, it packs a sophisticated message.
The Dayyeinu mentality is a counter-intuitive mentality. It’s hard to say ‘it would have been enough.’ I get the sense that most people have a hard time saying that anything that they have is really enough for them. Whether we’re talking about money, or possessions, or honor or prestige, or love and affection, or happiness or good fortune, couldn’t we always use more? And as long as we could use more, it’s not really enough yet.
A prayer like Dayyeinu reminds us to do as honest an assessment as possible of what we truly need, and of what we merely desire. If we have what we truly NEED, then we can say Dayyeinu, it would have been enough. And we can express honest appreciation for everything we have that is in excess of that bottom-line need.
It takes some degree of effort to train ourselves to see the world as a collection of blessings for which we are grateful rather than as a collection of disappointments and unfulfilled expectations. This is one of the most important concepts in Jewish prayer.
You may know that I love to quote from the Talmud: “hayyav adam levarech me’ah brachot be-chol yom.” “Each person ought to say 100 blessings each day.” (Menahot 43b) The talmud asserts that we can discipline ourselves to identify 100 miracles in our lives each day, and even on a difficult day we can find moments of happiness and satisfaction, wondrous moments that surpass our expectations.
A problem with this Dayyeinu perspective is that when we reduce our expectations of what we are going to get from the world, we have the potential to inhibit our reaching and striving. We have the potential to become complacent, merely taking whatever life circumstances are thrown to us. I have certainly met some people who take the Dayyeinu ideal to an extreme. Their attitude is always, “God will provide. And whatever God will provide will be enough.”
I would say, however, that Dayyeinu is not about reducing our desires or inhibiting our dreams. Rather, it reminds us that we ought to express gratitude whenever our dreams ARE fulfilled, just as it reminds us that in our lifetimes, a good portion of our dreams may NOT be fulfilled. For example, we each probably set out to achieve far more than we will actually be able to achieve in our lifetimes. But when this happens, we ought to still express gratitude even for our partial blessings.
You may know that one of the traditional Jewish names for God is “Shaddai.” In the Talmud (Hagigah 12a), one rabbi, Resh Lakish, explains that the name Shaddai is related to the Hebrew word “dai,” which means ‘enough.’ (This is the word that “Dayyeinu” is based upon.) Resh Lakish explains, God says, “Ani hu she-amarti le-olam dai.” God says, “I’m the one who said ‘dai’ to the world. I’m the one who said ‘enough’ to the world.”
God could have continued the process of creation, making a bigger world, or a more elaborate world. But I imagine that on that first Friday afternoon, as Shabbat approached, God said “dai.” Enough for now. Perhaps not everything is exactly as I might have preferred. Perhaps there is still much work to be done. But it is still a world full of blessing. Despite its lack of perfection, it will suffice. It is enough.
Perhaps when we sing “Dayeinu” at the seder, we are emulating God’s capacity to look at something incomplete or imperfect, and to see it as incomplete or imperfect, but also to see it as saturated with blessing.
Perhaps this is part of what we mean when we refer to looking at the world with Jewish eyes.