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When Dayenu isn't Enough
Remembering the moral of the Passover story
For Jews and those who celebrate with them, tonight marks the start of Passover. Growing up in a secular-Jewish family, Passover was once my least-favorite holiday: you read the same passages every year, you eat strange foods, and the seder is full of rigid requirements, like ironically mandatory gestures of relaxation. I always found it strange that a celebration of freedom came with so many rules.
Over the last few years, though, Passover has become my favorite religious holiday. Partly it’s because I’ve created some new traditions, including a casual annual seder where most of the attendees are gentiles. I enjoy putting together the seder meal, both as an excuse to learn some family recipes and as a Chopped-like challenge to combine as many symbolic foods as possible into each dish. It’s also the only time of year when I can coax other people into drinking Manischewitz.
But the thing that really gets me is the story. Even as someone who doesn’t connect to the religious aspect, the tale is complex and challenging. Each year when I revisit my family’s Haggadah in preparation for the seder, I find a new (to me) layer of insight in the story’s themes — some ancient wisdom that feels like contemporary commentary on a thousands-of-years-later current event. It is a testament to the universality of the story that the Passover seder has become a template for other marginalized groups to explore their struggles, from women and LGBTQ+ folks to the Black and Palestinian communities.
If you were to sum up Passover in one word, it would be dayenu, which roughly translates to “it would have been enough.” The word is repeated as the Seder Leader lists the many miracles that transpired in the story of the Exodus, each of which alone would be worthy of a holiday. “Had God brought us out of Egypt, and not fed us in the desert.” Dayenu! “Had God brought us to Mount Sinai, and not given us the Torah.” Dayenu! It captures the spirit of gratitude, optimism, and renewal that permeate the celebration of Passover. It might even be the most-frequently uttered word in a seder, depending on how many times you go through the eponymous song’s chorus (which consists solely of the word “dayenu” 11 times).
Alas, the joy is compartmentalized. Just before the song of gratitude comes what I think is the most-important part of the seder: the Ten Plagues. One by one, the celebrants recite the horrors that were visited upon the Egyptians in the name of our freedom — from the annoyances of frogs and lice to the merciless slaying of the gentiles’ first-born children — spilling a drop of wine for each one. “We cannot be glad when any person needlessly suffers,” Rabbi Arthur Gilbert instructs the table to proclaim in the Haggadah my family uses.
Gilbert extrapolates a broader philosophy from this lesson. “Freedom requires that each of us find redemption for ourselves,” he writes, “and that all of us together redeem our society.” He goes on:
Once one has achieved emancipation for oneself, it is possible to ignore the sufferings of others. Not so for us, however, for we Jews recall our origins: “Ye were slaves.” If in remembrance we taste the bread of affliction, we Jews understand that emancipation for those in society who are still afflicted and oppressed is ultimately our own redemption.
This point is also commonly illustrated by satirizing dayenu itself. “What does this mean, ‘It would have been enough’?” asks Rabbi Arthur Waskow. “Surely no one of these alone would indeed … achieve the whole liberation. It means to sing each verse as if it were the whole song and then sing the next verse!”
Thus dayenu finds its foil. “It would not be sufficient,” Waskow wrote in 1969, if genocide were stopped but wars persisted, or if police brutality were ended but world hunger remained. Saying yes, and to the hymn of gratitude has become a staple of modern progressive Haggadahs, usually (from what I’ve seen) with a slightly different wording: “It would not be enough for us.”
The last few years of American politics have provided stark reminders for just how bad things can get. If Donald Trump wasn’t the worst President we have ever had, surely he was the most embarrassing. The signature achievements of his term include pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change; ending the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, and then nearly provoking a war with them; and, of course, fomenting a riot at the U.S. Capitol as he tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election. As far as Passover metaphors go, a political strongman who’s obsessed with border control and declines to intervene when his country is beset by plague is a little on the nose.
In the face of such an odious status quo, it felt like any change would be a miracle — and considering how many people were working to undermine the 2020 election, maybe it was. But a funny thing happened in Democratic circles: They proclaimed dayenu, then forgot to sing the next verse. Critiques of Joe Biden are ignored because at least he’s better than Trump. “Vote Blue no matter who!” has evolved from a call for unity on Election Day to a catch-all deflection whenever a Democrat comes under scrutiny. Expecting better things from our leaders is seen as naïve (if not outright worse than the offending action itself) instead of a foundational tenet of representative democracy. This ideological dayenu manifests as not just a recognition of progress but a political cudgel, in clear opposition to the ceaseless social-justice work to which the Haggadah calls us.
The advent of Pesach this year comes at a crucial moment for the country and the world. Brutal wars and occupations rage in Ukraine, in Yemen, in Israel; COVID-19 continues to spread, despite attempts to downplay the current risks; the timeline to curb carbon emissions to avert catastrophic consequences draws ever-shorter; and the U.S. is more than halfway through the best chance to enact progressive federal policies we’re likely to have for quite some time. It’s time to adopt more urgency.
When vaccines are theoretically available to anyone in the U.S. but they are not always accessible for the economically disadvantaged, people with disabilities, and those in other countries: It would not be enough for us.
When a serial rapist no longer occupies the White House, but we still have a President with a long and public track record of sexual harrassment (and a serious accusation of assault): It would not be enough for us.
When politicians promise police reform, but the news still regularly brings stories of cops needlessly killing Black people: It would not be enough for us.
When we pour out our wine for the victims of millennia-old tragedies, but shrug our shoulders as present-day people suffer preventable misery: It would not be enough for us — and we must say so.
In an epilogue to his Haggadah — the post-credits scene to the Exodus, if you will — Gilbert breaks the fourth wall of the seder’s mythology, acknowledging that the final, symbolically poured glass of wine will go to waste. “Does it not seem futile to fill Elijah’s cup,” he asks, “knowing that the prophet will not be with us?”:
No. By that ceremony we sweeten the bitterness of our finitude and protect ourselves from despair. For we have dared to hope that we are capable of humanity. We have strengthened each other in the conviction that a better world is possible. Thus the Passover ceremony takes on purpose.
May we all carry forth the radical belief that uplifting humankind is an unending responsibility. May we remember that gratitude for societal improvements must be a complement to additional progress, not a substitute for it. And when we all gather next year in Jerusalem, may we have new victories for which to say dayenu.