Dayenu: Rosh Hashana 5777



Although the times might seem to demand it, I have decided not to dedicate a High Holy Day sermon to address the Presidential election.

I made this decision for three reasons and each of them can be summed up with one Hebrew word which you all know: Dayenu. It’s enough.

First, there has been so much press coverage, so much analysis and commentary that by now, I assume you’re saying: “Dayenu”, it’s enough. I hope you have made your wise decision for whom to vote and I certainly hope you do vote. I hope you have come to shul today to consider spiritual matters and to contemplate where you are in life as we begin this new year.

Secondly, you really don’t need a sermon. If you are still uncertain about for whom to vote or about how important this election is, just go back and re-read the prayer for the United States which we heard a few minutes ago. It expresses beautifully our ideals, values and principles as a nation of equality, respect, kindness, justice, appropriate humility and compassion.

Read the prayer. Dayenu. That should be enough.

Finally, both I and Rabbi Blumenthal have addressed political issues from the bima on Shabbat morning many times this past year. We have spoken out and will continue to speak out against words which incite hatred and racial division and against proposed policies which reflect an America which would discriminate against immigrants and Muslims and which do not reflect our values as Jews and as Americans. Many of these sermons were posted on facebook or on our Beth Israel website and some are on my blog as well. Dayenu. It’s enough from the bima.

So, today I’m not going to speak any more about politics. Instead, I am going to do what rabbis are supposed to do. I am going to teach Torah.

I love to teach Torah any time and especially at moments like this when I have the opportunity to expose everyone in the congregation to Torah study including those you who do not regularly participate in our study programs. Hopefully, some of you will be so taken by this text study that you will find your way to one of our various study groups over the year.

I made the decision a few months ago to teach Torah on Rosh Hashana but it took some time for me to decide which text to teach. And here, I’ll remind you that Torah, in this context, can mean any text from Jewish tradition, not just from the five books.

Here were my criteria for choosing a text to teach:

First, I wanted to choose a text that you were likely to be familiar with and one which carries with it positive memories and associations.

Second, the text must contain varied practical and philosophical lessons that can be appreciated by a diverse congregation of individuals who come with vastly different expectations and needs.

Finally, if at all possible, the text must be one which you wouldn’t think merited serious consideration. Finding surprising lessons in unexpected places is a big part of the magic of Torah study.

Those are my criteria and, after some consideration, I made my choice and text is in the envelopes you have in front of you so I will ask those at the end of the rows to open up the envelopes and pass the papers down to those in your row and as you do, we can all start to sing:

Eelu Eelu Hotzianu, hotzianu memitrayim, hotzianu memitzrayim, dayenu.           

I have never sung Dayenu with 800 people before. It sounds good, doesn’t it?

We just have to invite more people to the Seder.

By the way, this isn’t the only tune to Dayenu. There are others. My good friend San Slomovits wrote one for a cd of new Seder songs he and his brother Laz produced a few years back. I was honored to work on that project with San and I’ll give you a brief sample of his tune a bit later.

But, for now, let’s begin with the b’racha for Torah study remembering that study in our tradition is also a form of worship and praise.

The first question to consider with Dayenu is where it fits in the Seder.

Dayenu is the last text in the Maggid, the storytelling section of the Seder. The Mishna teaches: matchil biginut u’msayaym bisehvach, we begin with the sad part of the story and end with praise. So, if we consider the Mishna’s teaching, Dayenu, coming at the end of the storytelling, is the ultimate song of Exodus celebration. Dayenu lists 15 separate acts that we praise God for as part of the process of redemption.

And, for each of these 15 acts, we say Dayenu! It would have been enough for us. By the way, if you get bored and count the “Dayenus”, don’t worry that there are only 14. The first verse mentions two acts making a total of 15 and that number is critical as you will see.

Now, the obvious problem and the first Dayenu question: Would it really have been enough for us had God brought us into the desert and not brought us across the sea or fed us food? How could that be “enough”?

The most common answer to this question is that Dayenu means that each of these would have been a sufficient reason for us to praise God. Each one, in and of itself, would have been proof of God’s power.

Let’s think about that for a moment and consider it in the context of our own lives.

Can we ever truly say Dayenu? Do we ever really feel like we have enough to be grateful for and don’t seek any more blessings in our lives?

Most people would justifiably say: “No”. It is natural that we should not be satisfied and should want more and more good in our lives.

But Dayenu teaches us that we can and should look at our lives as made up of many specific, individual reasons to be grateful. We may not have everything we want and in some situations in life, it is difficult to muster up gratitude at all. But, it is important, each day, to ask ourselves: “What are we grateful for?”

We should seek to find something in life for which we can express gratitude every day and say that that piece alone is enough to celebrate the gift of life that God has given us. And, we should be sure to express gratitude not just to God but to the people around us who make our lives what they are. Don’t delay. Do it today.

After reading Dayenu, we might feel intimidated by the author’s effusive praise. But, remember, it was easy for him to say Dayenu about the acts of the Exodus because he was looking in retrospect and he knew that there was a happy ending to the story. In retrospect, after everything has turned out right, it’s easy to rationalize everything and truly appreciate everything that came before. But it is harder in the midst of our lives to express complete gratitude when we don’t know what the future holds. Still, living in the moment and finding the strength to express gratitude adds so much to our lives.

Let me demonstrate that. The list of miracles in Dayenu appears in another place in the traditional Haggada, right after our Dayenu.

These are the same but just in a list without the word Dayenu. It all seems so sterile, so drab compared to our song. You can’t even try to sing this. Without the expression of gratitude and praise, it is so much less satisfying.

When we express gratitude, when we recognize significant events in our lives as worthy of thanks, we add poetry and melody to our lives.

Now, when I read this other section, the one without the shout of Dayenu, I get the impression that the author prefers to see the Exodus as a total experience rather than breaking it down to individual pieces.

But, I think Dayenu’s approach is more reflective of the way we look at life.

We try to envision our life as a packaged unit but it’s so difficult. In the midst of life, we usually see events and judge each one as they are happening. Occasionally, on Rosh Hashana or perhaps on one of those dreaded but so, so welcome “special birthdays”, we take the opportunity to look back, to take stock and see events neatly fitting together. But, much more often, we see our lives as steps along a path, hopefully with some direction but in the midst of life, we are more likely focused on the step we’re on rather than seeing the entire stairway.

I began this morning by singing a tune that everyone knows and I mentioned San Slomovits. When San began to work on a tune for Dayenu, I made him promise that he would make his tune better than the familiar one in one critical way.

Our familiar tune is lacking because it leaves out the most important line of Dayenu. I refer to the introductory line. Without this line, the song is much less meaningful.

Kamah ma’alot tovot l’makom aleynu. How many acts of kindness God has performed for us! (This translation comes from the Rabbinical Assembly Haggada.)

I begged San to include it and he did, writing the following

Kamah, Kamah Ma’lot, Tovot Limakom Alyenu…

            Why is this first line so important? It is critical because it clearly was the inspiration for the entire song. The key word is Ma’alot. Ma’alot translated here as “acts of kindness” literally means “steps”.

The author of Dayenu took the 15 events of the Exodus and introduced them with the word: “steps”. What you need to know and this is proof that there is often more going on in Jewish texts than meets the eye, is that the number 15 was not arbitrary.

If you look in the book of Psalms, you will find 15 psalms that begin with the expression: Shir Ha’ma’lot, a song of steps. And, you should know that there was a certain stairway leading up to the Temple in Jerusalem which had, of course, 15 steps.

So, the author of Dayenu looked at this idea of 15 steps of the Exodus and related it to the 15 steps on the way up to the Temple itself which as you can see by the last sentence is the last of the steps of redemption as the author imagines it. The 15 acts of Dayenu correspond to the 15 “step psalms” and the 15 steps up to the final place of redemption.

Now, let’s think of our lives.

Think about the past year as a stairway. Did you climb? Did you move closer to your goals? Even if you do not know where your life is leading in the grandest sense, did you perceive some kind of a movement upward and can you picture that stairway, even with its twists and turns and its uneven steps, still moving you upward?

Not every year will provide that sense of satisfaction but we must do all we can to climb higher each year, pausing occasionally to catch our breath but always looking towards a great goal while expressing gratitude for that which we have.

Rosh Hashana is like a landing between floors, a time to look back and most certainly to look ahead as we continue to climb towards our ultimate goal.

May we all reach a bit higher this year. May we go l’ayla ul’ayla, higher and higher on our path, expressing praise and gratitude for each step, big or small.

Now, let’s look more deeply into the theology of Dayenu.

I believe that when looked at from a theological perspective, this beloved song is potentially one of the most dangerous documents that our people have ever produced. I love to sing Dayenu and will continue to sing it loudly. But, it scares me terribly.

Let me explain this by referencing a recently published book entitled: “Putting God Second” by Rabbi Donniel Hartman. In this book, the author makes a strong and so deeply needed case for the primacy of ethics in religious life, noting that our interpersonal behaviors are more important than any rituals we may perform or any faith we display. The ultimate purpose of religion is to lead to an ethical life.

I could not agree more.

But, I am particularly interested this morning in Rabbi Hartman’s formulation of what he calls the two “autoimmune diseases of religion”: aspects of religion which are self-destructive, preventing people from acting according to the moral principles and ethical values which ought to be the entire reason we engage in religion in the first place.

He calls these two diseases: God-intoxication and God-manipulation.

And Dayenu, our beloved song, is evidence of both.

Hartman defines God-intoxication as a religious viewpoint which “distracts religion’s adherents from their tradition’s core moral truths” and “consume our vision that we see nothing other than God.”

Think of Noah who ignored the plight of his fellow human beings in his zeal to do God’s will. Think of Abraham who was willing to sacrifice his son to prove his faith.

Religion has to be about more than responding to God or recounting what God has done or can do for us. We have to focus on what we can do as human beings with God and our tradition’s guidance.

So, how do we deal with Dayenu which is only about what God has done, phrase after phrase, step after step, about what God did for our ancestors and no mention of any courageous stands or acts of commitment taken by the Israelites during the Exodus? This seems like the dreaded God-intoxication and in fact is just that.

We can answer this by saying that the Exodus is an exception to the danger of God-intoxication. The Exodus is considered by our tradition to be the paradigm of God’s involvement in our world. But, once the Exodus was complete and the Torah was given, it is clear that God retreated, at least to some extent, in the background when it comes to our lives on earth to allow us to find our own paths with free will. So, we can talk in these terms at the Seder about the great experience of the past.

But it is dangerous when we do it about our lives.

From a theological standpoint, Dayenu, when left alone, is misguided. Our lives can not be a litany of what God has done for us. That takes away our responsibility as human beings.

Perhaps that is why Dayenu is written in the third person while so many other of our prayers address God directly in the second person. Perhaps that is why it is written in the past tense even though we are supposed to be reliving the Exodus at the Seder and acting as if it is happening right at our tables.

Dayenu is about what a third person God did for our ancestors, not how you, God, relate to us today.

Being intoxicated with God to the point of denying the fact that we hold the key to the quality of our lives is dangerous. This Dayenu model is not Judaism as we consider it today.

The other “auto-immune disease” that Hartman describes is God-manipulation. He teaches that “the great paradigm of God-manipulation is the myth of chosenness and the ways in which it is used to serve the self-interests of the anointed to the exclusion of all others”.


How is that for a quotation on Rosh Hashana?

By the way, I think he’s right.

Our world is, sadly, full of “religious” people who see their faith as the only true path or, worse, who strive to advance their own faith through the oppression or destruction of the “other”. Seeing this is enough to cause anyone with any sense at all to question the value of organized religion altogether.

And so, Dayenu presents a potential problem.

Dayenu tells an honored and foundational story in which God saved our people and cemented our relationship to the exclusion of others.

You know, it’s OK to have such a story. Many, many religions do.

But, to believe that God continues to act for our people at the exclusion of others and to use our “chosenness” as an excuse to justify selfish actions which harm others and to invoke the Divine to continue to favor is, I believe, a hillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name. This sense that “God is on my side” whether reflected in selfish behavior and superior attitudes or, so much worse, in horrendous, unspeakable violence is horribly offensive. The idea that God judges by virtue of heredity rather than by moral behavior is truly a disease that can undermine any good religion can bring to this world.

Just like with God-intoxication, this attitude must be limited to the experience of the Exodus. But, if we take the attitude of Dayenu into our day and assume that God is fighting our battles in opposition to the rest of the world just because we are who are, we are guilty of what Hartman calls God-manipulation and we are moving away from what should be our goal as human beings.

I believe our rabbis knew this and that is why our liturgy refers to two different times in which God interacted directly with our world and why we make Rosh Hashana such an important holiday, as important in many ways as Pesach. This is the anniversary of creation and that concept of divine creation is as dear to our people and critical to our faith as it the redemption of the Exodus.

While I hope, God willing, to give many more High Holy Day sermons in my rabbinic career, another Rosh Hashana reminds me that there are more in my past than in my future. Lately, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my favorite High Holy Day sermons, some of which will appear in the book that I’ve been working on for years and is now being prepared for publication.

One of the sermons that I did not include in the book was one I gave several years ago. I spoke about creation and stressed that Judaism implores us to believe in Intelligent Design, in a universe created consciously and with a purpose.

Of course I don’t believe in Adam and Eve. I believe in the Big Bang Theory and in Evolution. But, I also deeply believe that God orchestrated that creation to produce a world of thinking, creating and potentially good-doing human beings who could, if they put their minds to it, work together despite their differences to create paradise.

I believe in a divine creation not only because it gives us a sense that we are here for a purpose but also because it unites each person in the world as part of God. As important as the Exodus and Sinai are to our people, it is creation which celebrates the basic humanness of each individual In the world and I believe that if we and other people of faith would spend as much time talking about creation as we do about the specific moments in time that God established our unique faith covenants, we might find religion to be more a source for peace rather than conflict in the world.

Dayenu celebrates the Exodus and the importance of the giving of Torah and the land of Israel. They are absolutely critical to us as Jews. But they are not enough.

For each of us, our greatest expression of gratitude to God should be for the fact that against extraordinary odds, each one of us just happened to win the lottery when that one sperm and that one egg met. I believe a list of the acts we should thank God for, the ma’alot tovot, should begin with the two moments of creation, that of the world and that of ourselves.

That is what we should be grateful for. In and of themselves, they are cause for a big, heartfelt, loud, …no not Dayenu, because it is not enough. Our creation is not enough. We must make the most of the gift of creation we’ve been given. That is cause for a big, loud…Halleluyah.

We need the Exodus story. We need to remember and honor and cherish that which makes us unique and embrace the rituals and traditions which bring meaning to our lives as Jews. Those traditions can help to heal, to repair our world.

But, honoring the God of creation helps us to find commonality with all in the world and helps us to recognize the humanity of others, including to give just one example, immigrants or refugees whom we must view as fellow human beings not as threats to our sheltered lives. Thinking about creation should help us to build bridges, not walls.

So that is it: quite a bit to learn from a song that many of us first sang when we were very, very young.

The lessons are the importance of gratitude, the steps in our lives, keeping God in perspective while doing our job as human beings and seeking to unite with other people in the world rather than making religion only a divisive force. Talk about these ideas at lunch today and remember them six months from now when you sit at your Seder table and celebrate our unique covenant with God.

And, by the way, there is one more lesson of Dayenu and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. For the sake of those in the world who do not have enough and for the sake of our planet which must support our children and grandchildren and God willing, untold numbers of generations to follow and for the sake of our tradition which can only function in a world that works, maybe the most important message of Dayenu is that we learn to say: “it’s enough” when we know we can along with less.

But, one thing that we can never get along with less of and one thing that we should never say Dayenu about is the greatest gift we have as a people: the gift of wisdom and insight, the gift of learning and commandment, the gift of Torah.

Let us pledge to make this year of Torah learning and the life of commitment it inspires us to live as we graciously and gratefully move, God willing, to the next landing.


One thought on “Dayenu: Rosh Hashana 5777

  1. danop

    Fascinating! I never would have thought about making this connection between Pesach and Rosh Hashanah, but it works.

    It’s interesting that the Haggadah commonly used by Conservative Jews today includes only 12 acts in Dayenu. The Feast of Freedom deletes three that many modern Jews might find troubling, the ones referring to the deaths of their first born, getting their wealth, and drowning the Egyptians.

    On Rosh Hashanah, as we recall the anniversary of creation and wish each other a “Shana Tovah,” at times it seems to be only “about us.” Then, we read the story of Hagar and Ishmael, a stroke of genius as far as I’m concerned.

    L’Shanah Tovah!

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