Meditations on Dayenu

Yizkor Pesah 5777
April 18, 2017

For the past twelve months I have been thinking about the hot topic of last year’s Passover.  The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Life and Standards issued a paper whose position stated that it is acceptable for Ashkenazim to eat Kitniyot (legumes but encompasses rice, lentils and corn among others) on Passover.  It made the cover of the Tribune, the New York Times; and I got more questions about if/when CRZ will be adopting this new policy for Kiddush than I have gotten, most likely, on any other halachic (legal) question.  I found this puzzling because the CJLS, for the most part, lives in the absolute swampy backwaters of institutional Jewish life.  Not since their “infamous” driving teshuva (which, in 1950, stated you could drive to synagogue on Shabbat if there was no synagogue in walking distance) has its members been so relevant—they and kitniyot were trending.

I think this was resonant with people because they felt the bonds of tradition and its chains being lifted while so many of these people do not feel that way about other legal issues; most people need not a committee of rabbis in New York to tell them how to pray, if to celebrate 2nd day of yom tov (holiday) and whether or not reading on a Kindle on Shabbat is acceptable.  The CJLS’ decision on kitniyot, which was far less significant legally since nearly everyone in Israel eats kitniyot and all Sfardim do, yet it was freeing not because it was de’orita (a law directly from the Torah)—it is de’rabbanon (rabbinic law)—but because it is felt and observed as a de’misphaha law (a law of family).

Passover is, perhaps, the most observed Jewish holiday despite its stringencies and inconveniences because it is a holiday of family, at least the Seder.  That is why so many people have had seders on days other than Monday and Tuesday night because it is important to be with family even if not on the appropriate night.  The ties that link us to the holiday are not the story; it is the telling of that story.  God is not the binding factor—it is the commitment to those at the table—honoring that obligation is the true legal aspect of the Seder.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about those in our community and in our lives who were not at the Seder this year.  For those of you who are saying kaddish, that empty seat that did not belong to a mysterious being, the Santa Claus of the Seder, Elijah, it belonged to someone real.  That conspicuously empty seat certainly gave a new meaning to the Seder, and I would imagine an unwanted bitterness; a bitterness that, perhaps, you do not want apples or dates to mask.  The seats that were empty this year, whether newly empty or that person’s presence has been missed for years, they are missed nonetheless and time may heal the wounds of that loss but their memory does not fade and their legacy still looms large.

We sit at the table and reflect on the impact of those people.  We think about how the Passover story has been told and how to retell it; we think about how we have lived our lives and how we tell our story.  And we should think about how those at the table, those who are not there anymore as well, and how they have taught us, guiding us along the path towards living a life of significance whose story is filled meaning.

What were the prominent feelings as you sat down at your Seder this year and reflected on those who were not there for the first time?  How do you experience the memories and feelings of those whose absence has been for a long time?  What jokes and stories were no longer shared? What accents no longer heard, and what dishes not eaten or at least not with the same feeling as they once had?  What questions were no longer asked?  And what questions went unanswered?

The Seder is table is filled questions, most prominently four of them, and thus Passover or maybe Judaism as a whole, becomes a religion of questions.  But the lingering message of Passover should not be, at least not only, about why this night is different than all others—it should also be about the series of fifteen questions in Dayenu and the formula that it gives us for life.  Dayenu gives us the opportunity to live life with gratitude and see the blessings in our lives, as just that, blessings.  It is a song that is not frivolous or simply a silly way of engaging all at the table—it forces us to take stock of the little things in our lives.

  • Had I only been born, it would have been enough?

That is a good place to start, but since today we are saying Yizkor, it is also a means to conclude the holiday in a place memory.  It is way to think about and give voice to memories.

  • Had they only walked me to school, it would have been enough?
  • Had they simply made me a good person, it would have been enough?
  • Had they only provided a warm home for me to grow in, it would have been enough?
  • Had we only gotten married, it would have been enough?
  • Had you only made a decent brisket, it would have been enough?
  • Had you only made me smile when I was down, it would have been enough?
  • Had we only shared those games and sitting in the backseat on vacation, it would have been enough?

But dayenu also offers us a means to think about the bitterness and difficulty of memory.

  • Had you said sorry, it would have been enough?
  • Had I gotten sick instead of you, it would have been enough?
  • Had you said you loved me just one time, it would have been enough?
  • Had I not allowed my anger to consume our relationship, it would have been enough?
  • Had you been a more loving and thoughtful person, it would have been enough?

As the sand slides through the hourglass of Passover, we should see of Dayenu as a way to think about the little aspects of loss and the memories that fill their void?

  • Is the love I share with my family who are here, enough?
  • Is your memory enough to compel me towards a life of meaning and a life that furthers your legacy?

The Rabbis decision to place Yizkor at the end of the holidays was a brilliant stroke as it allows for our memories to be contextualized and localized, rather than summoning memories from nowhere.  Saying Yizkor at the end of a holiday enables us to think of a relationship in a certain time and place rather than from the very beginning or, often worse, the very end.  Dayenu is about the nitty gritty aspects of life, good and bad, and how we can find the blessings in them.

For each us, as we move forward, being grateful, offering gratitude to God, to those around us and the memory of those who are not, that is the enduring message of Dayenu.  We need to reflect on how our life was painted, filled in, and beautified by those who are gone rather than seeing what is empty because they are no longer here.  I hope Yizkor will help reveal where the afikomen of memories can be found, when we no longer have the matzah and maror guiding us toward their location.

Rabbi David Minkus

The Pulpit Shelf