It is enough, but it should not be

Second in a series of three Pesach articles.

Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
INN: J. Fogel

This article is dedicated to the memory of the author's father, on his yahrzeit.

In the first section of the Haggada, there is a cheerful poem which at first glance appears to be great praise and tribute to God.  It has become a popular song with a recurring refrain called Dayeinu, or “it would have been enough for us.”

A more nuanced and analytical observation however, reveals a troubling and perplexing aspect to this poem.  The reader declares that all that was needed to make us satisfied is that God took us out of Egypt. Everything else which occurred to us was peripheral, but not necessary.  This included any punishment or judgment which was rendered on the Egyptians and their Gods including the central act of the killing of their first born and passing over the homes of the Israelites.  That included the great miracles of crossing the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the pursuing Egyptian hordes, providing sustenance in the wilderness for forty years, and the miraculous food called Mun.  That also included the development of the spiritual foundations of Judaism. There was no need for the Sabbath, the revelation at Sinai, indeed, the Torah itself, entering into the Land of Israel or establishing the Beit Hamikdash, or Holy Temple.

Let us not misunderstand what is being declared: of course we are grateful to God and give Him great praise for providing us these great gifts and are joyful to accept them, but in reality we did not need them and could have continued our journey in this world without ever possessing them.  What was the assumption which allowed us to conclude that these crucial and essential components of Jewish life were in reality unnecessary for Jewish life and identity?

An analysis which can be utilized to explain this conundrum is an intriguing question posed by Rav Chaim HaLevi in his commentary of the Haggada known as Beit Levi.

Reb Chaim proposes the following:

One must investigate (or analyze) whether Israel is a nation like all the other nations except that they have an additional higher quality of having the Torah, or that they became a unique entity apart from all other nations through the Torah.  The distinction between the two positions is that in case, God forbid, they abandon the Torah. If the Torah is just an additional quality which is added to their essence, then nevertheless, without the Torah, they would be like all other nations.  If, however, they are a unique entity, then it is the Torah which sustains them and without the Torah they do not rise even to a level of the other nations. P. 182

Reb Chaim concluded that the latter idea is the correct understanding, i.e. it is the Torah which is the foundation of Jewish existence. He bases his opinion upon the following Talmudic passage, “Rav Yochanon ben Zakai cried and said, ‘How fortunate is Israel?  When they fulfill the will of God, no nation can dominate or rule over them. When they do not fulfill the will of God, He delivers them into the hands of the lowliest of nations.’” Ketubot 66b. This serves as proof to Reb Chaim, “that it is the Torah and the Commandments which are the foundation of their essence and that they cannot be equated or compared to all the other nations.” Ibid.

This is also demonstrated by the interpretation of the Seforno on the Torah.  He comments upon the verse, “behold I am presenting before you today a blessing and a curse.” Devarim  11:26. He states, “behold and see that your life should not be in the middle (mediocre) as it is the custom with most people.  For I am presenting before you today a blessing and curse, and they are two extremes. For a blessing offers greater success than that which is just necessary, and a curse is a diminishment which does not provide what is necessary for life, and both are before you to achieve as you choose.” Ad Locum.  

How then can we explain the argument that we would have been satisfied without being given the Torah and the commandments?  This could be easily understood. Dayeinu should be seen of the development of Jewish history beginning with the Exodus from Egypt.  Our communal history started with the mistaken belief that we were a nation like all the other nations of the world. Indeed in Egypt we also worshipped idolatry.  After over two hundred years of slavery, great suffering, abasement and exclusion from the society in which they lived, above all else, Israel craved acceptance and equality.  They were willing to live as all other nations of the world. It took the passage of time and experience to demonstrate to them that their initial assumption was incorrect. They could not be like other nations, but rather had to see themselves as unique among the nations of the world and to understand that their identity and essence is rooted in the Torah.

As the descendants of the patriarchs, they were chosen to be special by God and that choice was irrevocable.  Kedusha or sanctification became part of their essence and thus identity. They only had two choices: They could either accept God’s burden with joy, pride and hope or be relegated to nonexistence.  The experience of the Exodus and the ever increasing layers of miracles and spiritual growth provided them with the opportunity to see themselves as God’s special treasure. And in turn, treasure God’s choice.  Dayeinu foreshadows all of Jewish history. May we always choose life.