Some critically important Torah from my colleague Rabbi Sandra Cohen, humbly filtered through my own interpretive lens, for this unique season of liberation: A new understanding for “Dayeinu!”
This exclamation from the Hagaddah (the text for the seder, the Passover ritual meal) is simply a compounding of the word “enough” with the suffix “us.” It is meant to serve as a full sentence.
This word is often meant in modern usage–ironically–as a mercy plea, a cry for a reprieve. We might employ it to assert when our capacity to tolerate unpleasant change or misfortune has reached its limit (“This has been enough, i.e. too much, for us. We’ve endured plenty already–please stop; no more hardships!”). But the original intent of this proclamation in the Hagaddah is quite the opposite:
Traditionally, “Dayeinu!” is a shout of gratitude. It affirms that “it would have been enough for us“: We could have been satisfied if the Holy One only did x, y, or z for our ancestors or for us–and nothing more, not bestowing the additional acts of kindness, protection, deliverance, and blessing upon us that we also celebrate as part of our journey. It emphasizes complete appreciation for each and every good thing we have received. Whatever would have come our way, we would have humbly accepted as sufficient and as cause for thanks. Ideally, this outlook then also prepares us for taking the same approach in the future, cultivating an openness to grace–that sense that any goodness we enjoy is a gift, more than anything we deserve or have merited.
Grammatical interlude #1: In this formulation, the subject of this very short sentence–the implied “it”–is each good thing, whatever we are attributing to the Divine source of goodness. That thing would have been enough. And “we,” as passive recipients, are the object (with the implied preposition “for”), expressed, in English, with the word us. That blessing would have been “enough for us.”
This outlook is a very important one, indeed–though sometimes bordering on ludicrous when considering where “blessing x” would have left us stuck and finished if not followed by “deliverance y” (how grateful could we really have been for witnessing the splitting of the sea but not making our way through the opening in the waters?!). Perhaps embedded in the challenge of affirming its meaning in such extreme situations is an opportunity for engaging in a spiritual mindfulness exercise: we can discipline ourselves to narrow our focus upon the one blessing before us, seeing and embracing each encounter with goodness as its own world of meaning (seeing the proverbial tree in isolation and not worrying about the rest of the forest)–and being fully present for it; we can leave or cast aside the “noise” of the rest of the forest, all the other factors and considerations that tell us–often with good reason when we’re approaching our reality primarily with our rational minds–how there’s more to the story, why we need to keep moving forward, that we can’t be satisfied with “protection a” and must push on in order to achieve “kindness b.” Instead, being present for one experience of goodness, we can enjoy a taste of a reality in which we are truly “happy with our lot.”
The above reflection on what Dayeinu can mean–both as we look back onto our collective historical memory and also bring the wisdom of those experiences into our own lives–suggests a lot of hard work. Sometimes, we just don’t have the strength to idealize every moment and find happiness or be content with the reality that life is throwing at us. Sometimes, we find ourselves grumbling dayeinu with its other meaning that was mentioned above–as a way of saying we’ve had enough and wish for all of this hardship to go away.
The idea that each moment of blessing exists in a solitary state–as a discrete event that becomes its own world–can resonate more deeply for us today: The experience of being solitary, discrete, or separate is one we are actually embodying–we are living it out with our entire selves. Even if we are experiencing lockdown with a family unit that contains multiple members, each unit as a whole is blocked off physically from the rest of the world and is immersed in its own, separate reality–apart from the one unfolding in the house next door or in the apartment down the hall or wherever else others are “socially distancing.” (The solitary experience is all the more potent for those who are literally living alone.) Each household, regardless of its size, is its own single tree, a solitary blessing that stands apart from all others.
This current predicament–living in isolation from friends and relatives, divorced from familiar and rejuvenating social interactions or from the (old) routines of daily life or from the freedom to move about–challenges our openness to spiritual or emotional contentment. We are in unfamiliar territory and need to learn new ways of managing reality–new ways of coping with the unknown, with the stress of daily life. Many of us have had to radically re-envision how we do our jobs–if we still have a job. Many of us are worrying about our finances; others of us are worrying about loved ones whom we can’t visit in person, sometimes spending lots of time checking in remotely on those we care about. Parents feel anxiety about how to help their children flourish under new–and often inadequate or trying–conditions for learning and for enjoying a feeling of accomplishment; they may be managing intensified sibling squabbles as the duration of “stay-at-home” increases. Couples may be encountering new fissures in their relationship. Many of us are contending with extreme loneliness. (And all these struggles presume that everyone is in good physical health; the direct impact of the virus in terms of debilitating illness and death–and the fear that sickness often brings–is its own horror, intensified even more by isolation and separation, especially when mourners are unable to grieve in familiar ways.) Many of us are contending with an increased lack of motivation or with a stultifying boredom–and subsequent annoyance about our decline in productivity or frustration for not tackling those in-house projects we initially thought we’d dive into when this new reality began.
All the while, a thousand messages are blaring through news and social media about the “best way” to maximize this “exciting opportunity” of shelter-in-place. Yet, many of us find the feeling of confinement zapping our inspiration or motivation–and then find us judging ourselves for not “keeping up,” for not handling all of this better. The forest noise about all the “shoulds” can be very much like the noise that prevents us from enjoying a solitary moment of grateful celebration from our sacred narrative. Just as we might scoff at Dayeinu!–“how could we be happy if we were brought to the foot of Mt. Sinai but were not given the Torah?!”–and insist that we need to receive more blessing and deliverance, so too, we might place increasingly more unrealistic pressure on ourselves as we struggle with our new reality, insisting that we need to handle this challenge better, need to do more, accomplish more.
And so we come to a new and very relevant meaning for Dayeinu! at this moment: Rabbi Sandra Cohen suggests that as so many of us are struggling–feeling the weight of self-judgment, the oppressive sense of powerlessness, the pain of various experiences of loss–now is the time for a new understanding of Dayeinu!. Rabbi Cohen encourages us to invite Divine kindness and blessing into our own lives by affirming this eternal truth: “We are enough!”
Perhaps we can merge these two experiences of separateness–the one applied to each individual event in Daeyinu! and the one applied to us in our current separateness. Perhaps we can imagine our living unit (our individual self or our discrete family) as representing one specific act of kindness or deliverance that our ancestors enjoyed. And then we can apply the same challenge from the song in the Hagaddah to ourselves: Just as we imagine being able to find complete joy and contentment with absolute focus on just one specific special moment from our people’s formative narrative, may we also allow Divine kindness and love to be manifest–and may we see it–in the “event” that is us. May we then see our own selves as enough and as a cause for joy and gratitude to the Source of goodness and blessing who has brought us into being–specifically, separately, uniquely.
Grammatical interlude #2: In the traditional understanding of Dayeinu!, we saw how each good thing is an implied “it,” and that “it” would have been “enough for us.” In that sentence, “we” were rendered as passive objects, recipients of Divine grace. Our challenge now is to shift our focus–actually, to shift the focus onto us–to turn ourselves into the subjects of the proclamation. We do this not to emphasize our agency and fool us into expecting too much of ourselves as active agents who have immense control over our reality; part of this message of acceptance is that we don’t have such control–and what we do with this “turn of phrase” is redeem ourselves from the oppression of that overbearing myth of agency. We turn ourselves into subjects of the sentence not to empower us to do more, not to empower us to do anything. We do so in order to bestow upon us the predicate “are enough,” to affirm for ourselves the recognition we all deserve and that God has already granted us.
By engaging in this shift in focus, we once again become passive recipients–but not of some added, external act of Divine goodness that we celebrate as having affected our lives for the better. This time, we enable ourselves to receive the loving, Divine affirmation of acceptance, the confirmation of being abundantly adequate. This message perpetually calls. We need nothing more from the Divine bestower of blessing. It alone can lovingly envelop us, protect us, carry us, deliver us–if we let go of the illusion of control. When we do, this very counter-cultural message can enter fully into our reality and reverberate–again–with the redemptive refrain:
“Dayeinu! We are enough.“