Sunday, April 20, 2014

Dayenu: Is It Really Ever Enough?

I was visiting Chicago this past Shabbat, and I was in shul listening to R. Leonard Matanky give a d'var Torah during Shabbat Chol HaMoed Passover services. After his prefatory comments, he began his remarks on the Passover song דינו ("It would have been enough for us"; Dayenu). Dayenu, which is a popular song in the Passover haggadah, is a fifteen-stanza tune that expresses the thanks for the gifts that G-d gave the Jewish people during the Exodus, ranging from freeing the Jewish people from slavery to giving the gifts of Torah and Shabbat.

Taking his insight from Dr. Israel Eldad's haggadah, R. Matanky brought up an interesting question: was it really enough? One of the stanzas said that it was enough for G-d to take the Jews out of slavery. But what good would that be without the Torah or a raison d'être? What is the point of being thankful for G-d bringing the Jews to Mount Sinai if G-d had not presented the Torah? Traditionally, we keep saying Dayenu either because we have done nothing to deserve G-d's mercy or because we should be thankful for every little thing that G-d does. The point that both Dr. Eldad and R. Matanky were trying to make was that Dayenu was not meant to be literally. It was meant to be a springboard to help us think about what is enough.

This springboard is where I would like to make my comments on the matter. In Pirke Avot (4:1), Ben Zoma asks what makes for a rich person. His response?

השמח בחלקו, or "the person who is satisfied with his own lot." Ben Zoma's response brings us to a paradox in Jewish thought. If we are happy with what we have, doesn't that translate into passivity? If we're supposed to be happy with what we have, why bother striving for more?

A lot of the commentary surrounding this Pirke Avot verse has to do with material wealth (Commentary, Pirke Avot 4:1, Rashi, Magen Avot, Tiferet Yisrael). As R. Matanky brought up, people have way too high of standards when it comes to material wealth. We are always looking to own the latest technology and acquire mass amounts of wealth because they think it will fill in the void. Spiritual fulfillment is conflated with acquiring material wealth, and the crossing of wires leaves many highly unsatisfied.

When it comes to spirituality, however, many people set the bar too low. For many, it is regrettably set so low that they are lulled into a sense of complacency of doing enough. Judaism is not a religion of passivity. Judaism is not a religion in which we say Dayenu because we did something and we were meant to stop. We are meant to continue developing ourselves as better humans, help our fellow man, and foster a stronger relationship with G-d. As R. Zelig Pliskin points out in his book Happiness (p. 68), "In spiritual matters, look up and raise your sights. But when it comes to material and physical matters, look down."

In addition to raising the bar in spiritual matters, we can resolve another paradox of human nature. As humans, we are partly physical creatures and partly spiritual creatures. G-d didn't create us to be angels, but He didn't create us as animals without impulse control. We have free will. In Jewish thought, we are created in His Image. In this respect, we are "good enough." On the other hand, we were meant for more; we were meant to strive and constantly improve in our spiritual lives. As the Sages once said, although we were not meant to complete the task, it does not excuse us from desisting (Pirke Avot 2:21). Let Dayenu be a reminder that while we are to recognize where we have progressed spiritually, we are more importantly supposed to remind ourselves that we can always strive for further spiritual development.

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