One of the best-loved passages from the Haggadah, one that makes it into even the most abbreviated seders, is the singing of "Dayenu." A big part of the attraction is undoubtedly the lively, easy-to-croon melody that most of us know well.
But when you pay attention to the words, there's a question you have to ask about "Dayenu." The song enumerates the steps in the process of our redemption from Egypt and for each declares — Dayenu — it would have been enough for us.
Really? "Had He given us their substance without dividing the sea for us — Dayenu." Pharaoh's chariots were in hot pursuit and our ancestors stood at the edge of the sea with no way to move forward. Would it really have been enough for us if God had just left us there?
"Had He drowned our oppressors in the sea without taking care of us for 40 years in the desert — Dayenu."
Without the manna and the well, it would have been impossible for even a few thousand people to sustain themselves. Was there a point on the journey from Egypt to Israel when we could reasonably have said "Dayenu?"
Obviously, I'm not the first person to raise this question. Many commentators point out that Dayenu does not mean that this step alone would have been enough. Rather, it means this miracle would have been sufficient — Dayenu — for us to be obligated to give thanks to God.
But there's more we can learn from Dayenu — the Exodus was not a single act, but a series of separate steps and miracles. It reminds us that being Jewish and living a Jewish life is not an all-or-nothing proposition.
Take the case of kosher pigs. What is a kosher pig? It's a term that has been around for a while, coined by the late Rabbi Richard Israel. In essence, a kosher pig involves the painstaking application of halachah in the service of something that is clearly forbidden by Jewish law — for example, taking great care to perform technically perfect kosher slaughter and preparation of a pig. No matter how carefully you do it, it's still treif.
Kosher pigs abound at Pesach. Many Jews seem to focus on some bit of halachah in connection with Passover, even when they don't bother with others that we rabbis consider much more important. For example, a few years ago, The New York Times reported that one of the causes of the "great brisket shortage of 2001" was the large number of people who don't keep kosher year round or even for Pesach, but insist on buying kosher meat for the seder.
But the point isn't that people who do these things are hypocrites. People who behave inconsistently in this way are not fully observant Jews — but they are striving to do something Jewish and they shouldn't be mocked.
Those of us who are farther along the path need to applaud positive Jewish steps and encourage those on the road to take the next step. Judaism isn't about all or nothing, but about doing as much as you can today and trying to do a little bit more tomorrow.
This is the "Dayenu" lesson. In bringing us out of Egypt, God did not perform one act, but a series of separate miracles, each a separate gift for which we are obligated to give thanks.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa. E-mail her at: [email protected] earthlink.net.