As Pesach approaches we find ourselves in a furious rush. Between cooking, cleaning, switching out dish ware, finishing work before the two days of Yom Tov, and collecting all chometz to sell, trash, or burn, it can very much feel like the we’re living the very exodus we are preparing to commemorate. Some of us may even reach a breaking point where we want to throw up our hands and declare, ENOUGH!
Well… that’s a good enough segue as any to talk about the classic Seder song, Dayenu!
Oh, that catchy medley that chronicles the transformative miracles that God performed for us between our exodus from Egypt and giving us the Temple. And every step along the way we sing, Dayenu, it would have been enough. But wait a minute…
If God had taken us out of Egypt then stopped there, would it have really been enough? Would we be the Jewish people, the Chosen ones tasked with keeping the Mitzvahs of the Torah and perfecting the world had we only left the boarders of Egypt? Would we really have what was necessary to accomplish our mission if we didn’t see justice carried out on the Egyptians for our suffering? Would we even know how, if we didn’t experience God revealed at Mt Sinai or receive the Torah? God made a covenant with Avraham, how could it have been sufficient for God not to fulfill it and not bring us into our homeland of Israel?
It’s a very puzzling notion if you think about it. So there are a few perspectives to look at in order to delve deeper into this.
15 Reasons Why
Looking at it from a more Kabbalistic understanding, you’ll notice there are 15 favors/miracles Hashem did for us in the song. Why 15? There are certainly many other miracles that happened to us during our 40 years in the wilderness. But 15 shows up in several other places throughout our traditions. There are 15 parts of the Seder, 15 morning blessings, 15 verses in the Song at the Sea, there were 15 steps in the Beis HaMikdash to ascend in holiness. And most notable the way to write 15 in Hebrew are the letters י and ה which spell an important name of God. This name of God is what is credited as the aspect of God responsible for creation. The ה represents the breath God took when he made this world (olam hazeh) and the י represents the spiritual world to come (olam habah). So there is clearly a connection between 15 and bridging the physical with the spiritual.
But if 15 steps is what it takes to transcend to the spiritual, we’re still left with the problem, why would the song say each intermittent step along the way would have been enough?
Enough is Enough
Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, better known as the Malbim, said that the individual steps would not have been enough for us to become the Jewish people, but instead the song is referring to gratitude. A person can spend their whole life trying to achieve exalted experiences and enlightenment. Just think, how many people die trying to climb Mt. Everest. (Wikipedia lists 272 since 1922.) But experiencing anyone of these miracles listed in the song was like the peak of Everest times 10 (and I imagine experience Hashem at Mt. Sinai more like times a million).
To have one authentic moment of connection with Hashem is what is enough. That each singular experience alone would have been all that was necessary for their spiritual needs. But God kept the miracles coming. By remembering and recognizing the each of the steps that brought us to the end, the whole experience becomes greater than the sum of its parts. It becomes the transcendent 15. So obviously if God had stopped at any particular step before the end, the Jewish people would likely have become lost. It is often said, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Too often we’re more focused on results than on the steps that brought us there. But to truly transcend, it is essential that we reflect and cherish each kindness as if that was all we needed.
House of Choice
The last thing I’ll point out is the final stanza of Dayenu reads, “If God had brought us into the Land of Israel but not built the Holy Temple… Dayenu.” If you look at the Hebrew, it refers to the Temple as the Beis HaBechira opposed to the Beis HaMikdash. Mikdash means sanctuary and is more commonly how we refer to the Temple while Bechira means choice. On the surface level, referring to the Temple as the Beis HaBechira simple means that there will be a location that God will choose to place his House of Worship (because the Jews don’t get the Temple until after the Torah concludes).
But another way of looking at it (this is my own insight so take it with a grain of salt), is that Bechira is also the Hebrew word for free will. Many of us who are growing in our of levels observance have the perspective, “Okay I’m here. I’m going to Torah classes and I’ve stopped eating pork. But I’m probably not going to do that whole shatnez thing and I’m certainly never jumping into a mikveh.” Almost as if to say, “Where I’m at is good, I think this is enough.” And so, though we’ve reached new and exciting levels of spirituality, we have no plans to go all the way. So Dayenu comes along to tell us, fine you can say where you are at is enough. But should you want to get to true closeness with Hashem, real exalted levels, the Beis HaMikdash level, that is there if you so choose it. But do not forget the miracles that brought you to where you are.