Passover is the time of year when Jews retell the core narrative of the Jewish people, which goes like this: We were slaves in Egypt for over 400 years, then God brought us out of Egypt “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” to become a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The Passover story is a powerful account of redemption through revelation that reminds us annually of our deep-rooted connection to God, freedom, community and Torah.
But it’s interesting to note that within the first few weeks of freedom, the Jews began to complain bitterly about how rough life was in the desert. Food was scarce, nights were cold and no one seemed happy with this new life – definitely a lot of kvetching for a group who, just weeks before, had been building pyramids under the yoke of Egyptian bondage!
Perhaps a way to understand the kvetch part of our story is to view it as a reflection of the tendency to never be fully satisfied with our lot. The Exodus story suggests that it’s part of human nature to complain about what we don’t have rather than to focus on and be grateful for what we do have.
We spend most of our lives in relationships with others, so its natural to compare ourselves to those we know, admire, live or work with. But often, comparing ourselves to others leads to our own dissatisfaction, because, somehow, others just seem happier, richer, more popular or more successful. And just like in the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” we think to ourselves: “I’ll have what she’s having!”
The issue of being unhappy with what we have and always wanting more has been around since the beginning of time. Adam and Eve are a great example: God tells them they can eat from any tree in the Garden of Eden except for the Tree of Knowledge, and bingo, Eve goes straight for the apple from that very tree.
Over 2,000 years ago, the rabbis discussed this problem and gave us this bit of wisdom: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.”
Passover is a great time to renew our commitment to become more aware of what we have. The seder can provide an opportunity to reflect on and share our appreciation for the people and things for which we feel grateful.
During the seder, we sing an upbeat, 1,000-year-old song called “Dayenu.” Translated from Hebrew, it means “It would have been enough.” Dayenu is the quintessential Jewish gratitude song. It reminds us, over and over again, that whatever we have is enough and that each additional blessing is a gift, a bonus, from God.
In the song Dayenu, we sing verses like:
“If God had brought us out of Egypt and not punished the Egyptians, Dayenu!”
“If He had fed us manna in the desert but not given us Shabbat, Dayenu!”
“If He had brought us before Mt. Sinai but not given us the Torah, Dayenu!”
It’s hard to imagine Jews saying it would have been enough had we not been given the Torah – and yet that is what we sing. From the song we understand that “Dayenu” doesn’t literally mean “It would have been enough” as in “No more, you can stop now, game over.” Rather, the words remind us that no matter what we might not have, we should be grateful for all that we do have. In Dayenu, we thank God for each step of the journey and all that happens in between. Dayenu focuses our attention on what we have instead of what we lack.
At your seder this year, consider creating “Dayenu!” moments. You can use a simple statement about gratitude and let your family members and guests fill in the blanks. For example: It would have been enough if … (my son graduated college), but he … (also got a job). Dayenu! Or: It would have been enough that … (I reached my 65th birthday), but … (my parents are also alive). Dayenu!
Another way to celebrate Dayenu moments is to have a discussion where family members and guests share what they are grateful for at this point in their lives. Even if everyone doesn’t participate, you can begin a new Seder tradition. Dayenu!
Amy Hirshberg Lederman has written more than 300 columns and essays that have been published nationwide. amyhirshberglederman.com