Dayenu: Giving Thanks
Rabbi Ari Kahn
The main section of the Passover Haggadah, known as Maggid, in which we tell the story of our miraculous liberation from slavery, is capped off by a song, sung to a tune that is known and loved in virtually every Jewish home: Dayenu. This song is comprised of fifteen stanzas, in which we enumerate the miracles that brought us from the house of bondage to our homeland—God’s acts of kindness that we might not have expected or even deserved. As we mention each new step, each wondrous stage in the process of our emancipation, we say “dayenu”: Had God not performed this additional miracle, we would have been satisfied with everything else He had already done for us. Each new miracle would have been, on its own, sufficient reason for us to give thanks.
The purpose of the song is to sensitize us to the myriad acts of kindness performed by God for the Jewish People, to foster a national sense of hakarat hatov. To understand the importance of expressing thanks and appreciation, we would do well to consider the first sin, committed in the Garden of Eden, which resulted in the first exile. When we think about that episode, the first thing that comes to mind is the forbidden fruit, but another element altogether may actually have been the real sin.
Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the one and only tree God had expressly placed off limits. God conducts an inquiry, as it were; He asks Adam to explain his behavior. Rather than admitting his guilt or taking responsibility for his transgression, Adam blames his wife—and, by extension, God Himself.
וַיֹּאמֶר הָאָדָם הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה עִמָּדִי הִוא נָתְנָה לִּי מִן הָעֵץ וָאֹכֵל:
The Man (Adam) said, “The woman that You gave to be with me, she gave me [the fruit] from the tree, and I ate.”
Instead of thanking God for supplying him with a soulmate, Adam is accusative; he blames her for his transgression. Rashi considers this statement, and comments: “Here, Adam showed his ingratitude (literally, ‘denied the good’) for what God had done for him.” Had Adam apologized for his sin, had he expressed even the most basic appreciation to God for having given him a partner, the story would very likely have had a different ending. Instead, Adam implies that had God given him a better mate, he would not have sinned. Adam blames anyone and everyone else, and turns God’s kindness on its head: He does not express any appreciation for the perfect existence God created for him, nor does he have any gratitude for the miraculous creation of Eve. For this, as much as for the transgression of eating from the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve are exiled from Eden.
This gives us quite a lot to think about in terms of the Passover Seder: The Seder allows us to relive the end of the Egyptian exile, one of the most bitter exiles in the long history of Jewish wandering. Each year, as we identify with the Exodus, as we retell and commemorate the events of the Exodus, we, too, sing songs of praise and thanksgiving. The core of the Maggid section is made up of midrashic teachings that expound upon the biblical passage known as Arami Oved Avi. These same verses are recited during the Festival of Bikkurim; Rashi (Devarim 26:5) tells us that these verses, recited as we bring the first fruits up to the Holy Temple, are an expression of our joy and gratitude for all the good God has given us. With the bounty of the Holy Land in hand, we recite this particular text, which places our joy into historical, national and religious perspective. We offer thanks to God—for His kindness, and for fulfilling the covenant He made with our forefathers.
The expression of thanks that lies at the heart of the joyous Bikkurim celebration is, in a very real sense, the culmination of the Exodus, the end of the exile. The Torah makes this very clear: On the festival of our liberation, we begin counting the Omer—counting the days and weeks to the Festival of Bikkurim. The objective of our redemption from Egypt was to bring us to the place where we were able to praise and give thanks to God with full hearts and full hands: The Festival of Bikkurim in the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. For this reason, the song of thanks we sing as we conclude the story of the Exodus—Dayenu—culminates in the fifteenth stanza, with the building of the Beit HaMikdash.
In his commentary on the Haggadah, the Gaon of Vilna teaches that the fifteen stanzas of Dayenu are parallel to the fifteen steps of the Beit HaMikdash that connected the Ezrat Nashim to the Ezrat Yisrael. As the Levites ascended these stairs, they sang the fifteen Songs of Ascent, songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. Dayenu, then, is both a lesson in the importance of appreciation and an experience of joy. As we sit at the Seder, perhaps our singing should parallel that of the Levi’im on the steps of Holy Temple. As we acknowledge each of the miracles and acts of kindness God performed for us, Dayenu’s final stanza connects us to the Beit HaMikdash and to its joyous song, enabling us to take a moment to consider, to appreciate, and to give thanks for God’s kindness.