Dayenu’s Directive

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08 Apr 2024

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Towards the end of the Seder, after recounting the entire exodus narrative, we come to the liturgical poem, Dayenu. In fifteen distinct steps, we seem to be summing up the entire narrative and continuing toward the purpose of our redemption, receiving the Torah, entering the Land of Israel, and ultimately building the Beit Hamikdosh. The poem is introduced with the thought, ” How many מעלות טובות/favors למקום/has the Omnipresent bestowed upon us,” and separates each kindness from the next with, “Dayenu/It would have been enough for us.”

Rabbi Bernstein, in Darkness to Destiny, raises some interesting questions about the language, syntax, and therefore the true meaning of this song. A precise grammatical translation of the introduction would read, “How many good levels/favors to the Omnipresent are upon us,” either as a question or as a wondrous statement. Further, how could we truly believe that if Hashem had stopped at any of these kindnesses without continuing, we would have felt it was sufficient, never having reached the goal? Finally, is there any significance in exactly fifteen stages of goodness here being recounted?

To answer these questions, we will be discussing the three goals of the Seder night.

Our first goal as we sit at the Seder is to make the exodus experience real so that we feel as if we ourselves have been redeemed. As Rabbi Kluger points out in My Sole Desire, the night of Pesach is constantly referred to as הלילה הזה/this night, not any night. The definite article, this, always means something tangible, visible, perfectly understood, in contrast to the indefinite article, a night. While night generally indicates darkness, when visibility is obscured and God’s presence is hidden, on this night, God’s presence was revealed so clearly that we recognized His presence as if it were full daylight. That clarity is meant to be re-experienced each Seder night. We use tangible symbols to help us capture the experience, such as the matzah and the bitter herbs which must be present at our Seder table if we are to observe the Seder properly.

Besides retelling the story of our redemption, the Haggadah reinforces the transformation of night into day as we continue with the text itself. We continue with the recitation of Hallel, our prayer of gratitude and praise to Hashem which we recite on every Rosh Chodesh and every major yom tov. But, except for the Seder night, Hallel is recited only during the day, during the morning prayers. On this night, however, night has been symbolically transformed into the brightest day, our vision absolutely clear, as we witness God’s presence in our history and in our present lives.

But it is not enough for me personally to walk away from the Seder table with that clarity of faith; it is incumbent upon me that I instill that clarity and faith into my children as well, for Hashem has commanded us והגדת לבנך/to tell your children in no uncertain terms, so they they too will internalize it, that Hashem has done this for me. The faith and loyalty that we have for Hashem must be instilled in our children. Our personal stories then become part of the narrative as well.

The Sifsei Chaim now brings us to the second goal of the Seder, the sense of overwhelming gratitude to Hakodosh Boruch Hu for having redeemed us from the servitude of Egypt. Hashem identifies Himself to Bnei Yisroel specifically with this kindness He did for us and for us only: “I am Hashem your God Who has taken you out of Egypt…” Why? So that we would have that sense of gratitude that goes beyond logic so that we would observe His commandments even when we do not understand them. Our mitzvah observance then goes beyond obligation and is performed with gratitude and love. Our acceptance of the yoke of Heaven is inextricably tied to our sense of gratitude. By recounting each detail of Hashem’s kindness, we increase our gratitude, our faith in Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and our commitment to His Torah and mitzvoth. [Lehavdil: Difference between, “You saved my life, when I fell” and, “You ran into oncoming traffic, you stopped the cars from running over me, you pulled me out of harm’s way, and then you even waited with me until help arrived.”] As we recount each step, our sense of gratitude grows. And, as Rabbi Bernstein reminds us, don’t wait until the end of the process to express gratitude. Give thanks for each step.

In truth, notes Rabbi Pruzansky in Night of Emunah, unless s favor is extraordinary, we take most kindness for granted. Just as a child will seldom thank his parents for all they do to provide for them, from providing a home, feeding them, helping with homework and all the other mundane activities of parenthood, so do we take for granted all the chesed that Hashem does for us on a daily basis. Each of the steps in Dayenu is certainly worthy of expressing our gratitude to Hashem, even without the next level of chesed. Hashem owes us nothing; we owe Him everything. With Dayenu we begin to train ourselves to articulate our gratitude, to say, “Thank you,” to Hashem. Having completed the story of the exodus, notes the Malbim zt”l, Dayenu gets us into the mindset to recite Hallel, the praises of Hashem.

In this vein, the Malbim zt”l continues in the text of the Haggadah, “Therefore it is our duty… לעלה ולקלס/to extol [raise up] and acclaim He Who performed all these miracles…,” and give thanks for each good He has done for us individually, not just collectively. Make the gratitude personal, for those who approach life with a sense of entitlement rather than a sense of gratitude will never feel joy, they will never have enough.

Recognize your blessings, even when they seem insignificant. Rabbi Kestenbaum relates the story of Rabbi Akiva. After his wife had married him against her father’s wishes and had been disowned, they was so poor that they slept only on some straw in a shed. When a poor man knocked on their door asking for some straw for his wife who had just given birth, Rabbi Akiva was thankful that, while others had nothing, he at least had straw.

Similarly, Rabbi Pruzansky relates the story of the Rabbi who meticulously prepared the special matzos for the Seder, from the time of planting until they were baked and secured on a high shelf. When his grandchildren came over, they played a little too wildly, as healthy children are wont to do. The package of matzah fell and shattered, making them unfit for the Seder rituals. Instead of railing at the children for his loss, he was grateful for the blessing of healthy children and grandchildren.

On Pesach the attitude of Pharaoh should stand in sharp contrast to the attitude of Bnei Yisroel. Pharaoh was ungrateful, conveniently forgetting all the blessings that Yosef had brought to Mitzrayim. We need to emphasize our hakorat hatov, grateful acknowledgment of all the good Hashem has bestowed upon us. writes Rabbi Spero.

Rabbi Reuven Feinstein provides a different perspective on our discussion. He rightly says that any one of these things would have been enough for us to believe in Hashem. Yet Hashem kept sending us further proof, every step of the way, to strengthen our faith. We did not have to go through an intellectual process to arrive at the knowledge that Hashem exists, is the Creator and Sustainer of the world, as our forefather Avraham did. He made it easy for us to have faith in Him, providing us with layer upon layer of miracles as we were formed and grew as a nation. For example, it was not just plagues that Hashem rained down on Egypt, but שפטים/justice, measure for measure. Each of the levels in Dayenu reveals a different aspect of God and gives us yet another way to elevate ourselves and connect with Him.

All our rituals and practices of the Seder confirm our identity and reflect our history, writes Rabbi Pincus zt”l. The three matzos represent our three Patriarchs, and the four cups of wine represent our Matriarchs. The wine is customarily red and drunk throughout the night to imbue the entire Seder with the passion and faith that should permeate our lives.

If I do not leave the Seder feeling elevated, I have not fully immersed myself in the Seder experience. We need to go higher and higher, לעלות, not simply go around by rote, in circles.

We now get to our final question, why fifteen? The Shvilei Pinchas begins with the simple yet profound observation that fifteen is the numerical value of the two lettered Name of Hashem, the ten of the י and the five of the of the ה. But the Beit Hamikdosh itself, the dwelling place of God’s presence with which we end the Dayenu, had fifteen steps separating the men’s and women’s sections. During the festive ceremony of Simchat Beit Hashorvah, the Leviim would stand on these steps. At each step, they would sing one of the fifteen Shir Hamaalot, Song of Ascents that King David composed specifically to help us rise in spirituality. It is this two lettered Name of Hashem with which Hashem created the world, as the Prophet Yeshayah says (26:4), “For in י and ה is the strength of the worlds.” [This also explains why this is the Name Hashem uses in His constant battle with Amalek, for Amalek undermines the existence of the world. CKS]

Our goal on the Seder night is to use the fifteen steps of the Seder ritual to be worthy of Nirtzah and of rebuilding the Beit Hamikdosh.

This work takes place in the Jewish home, in connecting the women with the men in sanctity, for it was in the merit of righteous women that Bnei Yisroel were redeemed from Egypt. When the איש and אשה, the man and the woman include Hashem, the י and the ה in the home they build together, they will draw God’s presence into that home, for Hashem wants to rest among us more than in it, more than in the Temple.

Hashem further attests to the purity and sanctity of Bnei Yisroel when He adds His name to the names of each of the tribes as the census is taken in Parshat Pinchas, the heh at the beginning and yud at the end of each family’s name, HaReuveni, for example. As they maintained their sanctity in Egypt, so we maintain the sanctity of our Jewish homes today. We begin our Seder with the fifteen simanim, symbolic names for the steps of the Seder, we go through each step with gratitude, becoming ever more cognizant of the beneficence of Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and conclude with the hope of rebuilding the Beit Hamikdosh.

Chag Sameach.

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