Had G-d brought us out of Egypt
But not parted the Sea for us – Dayenu!
Had G-d parted the Sea for us
But not brought us through on dry land – Dayenu!
Had G-d brought us near to Mount Sinai
But not given us the Torah – Dayenu!
Here’s a conversation starter for a dry seder: Does anyone really believe the words to this song?
I mean, we’ve been singing Dayenu a long time – probably since the era of the Geonim (650-1075 CE). Even families that have abridged the seder to a significant degree still consider this song essential. But consider the words as they appear on the page, and the message is less than obvious. Do we really believe that “It Would Be Good Enough for Us” (for that is the meaning of Dayenu) if G-d had redeemed us from slavery and then left us to starve in the desert? If the Sea had parted and the story ended there? If we had not been allowed to coalesce into a people, and had ultimately gone the way of the Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites, Babylonians, and others who long ago folded into history’s abyss?
Of course it wouldn’t have been “good enough.” Any break in any link of the chain of those miraculous events would have signified the end of the Jewish people, and there wouldn’t be anyone around to sing Dayenu to G-d. How could that possibly be “good enough”? So maybe this passage has more to it than meets the eye?
Dayenu is placed nearly halfway through the seder, after most of the storytelling has taken place and just after the recitation of the Ten Plagues. We have already recounted the brutality of slavery. We have begun to comprehend all the many miracles – and the miracles upon miracles, according to Rabbis Yossi Ha-G’lili, Eliezer, and Akiva in the Haggadah – that have brought us here today, to this moment. Soon we’ll be feasting. But first we sing this song.
The themes of what it means to be a slave and what it means to be free are placed before us. And there’s a trap. We might reach this point in the seder, say to ourselves that slavery is a thing of the past, and we’re done with it. Let’s eat.
But slavery is not a thing of the past. Those who delude themselves into thinking they’re the most free just might find themselves in chains more restrictive than ever. Just consider:
· One in three Americans are chronically overworked;
· 54% of Americans have felt “overwhelmed” at work in the past month;
· 21% of overworked Americans exhibit symptoms of clinical depression.
Do you see? A girl who starves herself “just to lose a few more pounds” is still enslaved. A family that feels compelled to make a Bar Mitzvah party that much bigger or more lavish because that’s the style is enslaved. A teenager who accommodates sleep deprivation just to get fifty more points on the cursed SATs is still enslaved. Uniquely, Americanly enslaved.
What’s the way out of this trap? Only this: the person who knows how to say Dayenu—what I have is, indeed, truly enough for me—is the person who is really free. I can stop the endless pursuit of acquiring, competing, accumulating more. In fact, I can do a better job at giving some of it away.
Of course, there are plenty around us who are truly, desperately in need. This lesson can’t be applied outwards toward our neighbors, telling them they should be satisfied with whatever they have (as in the words of the miser in a classic Chasidic story, “If I can subsist on bread, they can surely subsist on stones!”) It only works when directed within.
That’s why we sing Dayenu in our seder. Only the person who can look at his life and say, “What I have is truly what I need,” knows the taste of liberation; everything else is delusion.
 Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much, Families and Work Institute, 2005, http://familiesandwork.org/press/overworkinamericarelease.html#overwork