Thanking Those Who Packed Our Parachutes, The Essence of Dayeinu

It is almost impossible to imagine the Seder night without the singing of dayeinu.  Young children to octogenarians can be found humming the addictive melody to dayeinu.  Interestingly, the Rambam does not have dayeinu in his Hagaddah and even Rav Saadia Gaon whose Hagaddah serves essentially as the basis for ours, only has dayeinu as an addendum at the end of the Haggadah among those songs that only those who can hold their wine sing.

Yet for us, dayeinu is central, a centerpiece of the hagaddah and a highlight of Seder experience.  The tune is catchy, but the words and theme are frankly bizarre.  Had you taken us from Egypt but not split the sea, dayenu.  Really, would it have been enough?  If you had taken us to Har Sinai but not given us the Torah, dayenu, it would have been enough.  Really, don’t we talk about how the Torah is the air that we breathe, indispensable to our lives and to our very existence?   Had He given us the Torah but not brought us into Israel it would have been enough.  Really?  Wasn’t Israel created before the world because it, the Jewish people and Torah and the three pillars upon which the world is built?

Every commentator and every Hagadda asks the same question:  What do you mean dayenu, it would have been enough?   Most of the discussions of dayeinu, center around an analysis of individual and particular stanzas.  However, I want to share with you an insight that will give you an entirely new way to understand dayeinu. Understanding what dayeinu is really all about and why it is a centerpiece of our Seder requires us to zoom out the lens and instead of investigating specific lines, to look at the poem as a whole.   What do the 15 stanzas have in common?  Why were these events or experiences chosen?

Rabbi Nachman Cohen in his Historical Haggada offers a fantastic insight.   If you look at the Chumash and in Tehillim, chapter 106 in particular you will notice that every stanza of dayeinucorresponds with an incredibly gracious act God did for us and our absolute ungrateful response.

Here are a few examples: We say “had God just taken us out of Egypt it would have been enough.” However, if you look in Deuteronomy 1:27 it wasn’t enough. “Because God hates us, He has brought us out of the land of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us.”

Another example: we say, “If you just fed us the manna it would have been enough.” But it wasn’t enough. We said, “our soul loathes this bread.” We say, If You just brought us into Israel dayeinu, it would have been enough,” but it wasn’t. It says in Numbers, “[Israel is ] the land that eats up its inhabitants.”

Explains Rabbi Nachman Cohen, dayeinu is our reflecting on our history and repairing the lack of gratitude we exhibited in the past. Seder night we look back on our national history, we review our story and we identify those moments, those gifts from God that we failed to say thank you for. We rectify and repair our ingratitude and thanklessness through the years by saying dayeinu now. In truth, dayeinu, each of these things was enough to be exceedingly grateful for.

Freedom demands gratitude.   If you have are set free, but fail to acknowledge how you attained that freedom, you in fact remain enslaved to your ego and you selfishness.   If you can’t recognize what has been done for you and that you could not have done it yourself, you are not freed from your narrow, self absorbed way of life.  Gratitude is a byproduct of true freedom.

The Midrash describes – He who has no gratitude is like one who negates the existence of God.  If you are so insensitive to those who benefit and sustain you, certainly you will never recognize the blessings which God provides.

Ingratitude is a fatal character flaw individually and nationally.  On the night of Pesach, when we relive the experience of becoming a people and celebrate our national birth we repair the ingratitude of our past with the recognition that we are unworthy and dayeinu, all that God did for us was beyond what we deserved.

Instilling Gratitude in the Home

A couple of years ago the Wall Street Journal had an article entitled, Raising Children With an Attitude of Gratitude, Research Finds Real Benefits for Kids Who Say ‘Thank You’.  The author, Dianna Kapp writes:

“A field of research on gratitude in kids is emerging, and early findings indicate parents’ instincts to elevate the topic are spot-on. Concrete benefits come to kids who literally count their blessings.  Gratitude works like a muscle. Take time to recognize good fortune, and feelings of appreciation can increase.”

The mere act of giving thanks has tangible benefits, research suggests. A 2008 study of 221 kids published in the Journal of School Psychology analyzed sixth- and seventh-graders assigned to list five things they were grateful for every day for two weeks. It found they had a better outlook on school and greater life satisfaction three weeks later, compared with kids assigned to list five hassles.

“The old adage that virtues are caught, not taught, applies here,” says University of California, Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons.  Parents need to model this behavior to build their children’s gratitude muscle. “It’s not what parents want to hear, but you cannot give your kids something that you yourselves do not have,” Dr. Emmons says.

Everyday actions may be even more important than big efforts, researchers say. “Express gratitude to your spouse. Thank your kids,” Hofstra’s Dr. Froh says. “Parents say, ‘Why should I thank them for doing something they should do, like clean their room?’ By reinforcing this, kids will internalize the idea, and do it on their own.”

Seder night is an incredible opportunity to model gratitude for our children, grandchildren and all gathered.  During dayeinu, pause to be appreciative, not only to Hashem for what He has done for our people and for each of us.  Be thankful to those who worked so hard to make Pesach happen.  Someone or someones had to work hard to earn the money to pay for pesach.  Someone had to shop, cook, clean, prepare, set up, clean up, etc.  Don’t just thank your spouse or your parents, but as the article says, thank your children for what they did to pitch in.

Dayeinu teaches that Pesach is not just a time to learn the attitude of gratitude and how to say thank you for the present.  Pesach reminds us that to set ourselves free we need to look back at our lives and identify those who made all the difference and whom we neglected to thank.  Pesach pushes us to make a tikkun, to repair the ingratitude and reach out to say thank you.

Who Packed Your Parachute?

Charles Plum, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, was a jet fighter pilot in Vietnam. After 75 combat missions, his plane was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile. Plumb ejected and parachuted into enemy hands.   He was captured and spent six years in a Communist prison.  He survived that ordeal and one day, when Plumb and his wife were sitting in a restaurant, a man at another table came up and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam and you were shot down!”  “How in the world did you know that?” asked Plumb.   “I packed your parachute,” the man replied,  “I guess it worked!”

That night, Plumb couldn’t sleep while thinking about that man.  He kept wondering what this man might have looked like in a sailor uniform.  He wondered how many times he might have passed him on the ship and never acknowledged him.  How many times he never said hello, good morning or how are you.   You see, Plumb was a fighter pilot, respected and revered, while this man was just a ordinary, lowly sailor.    Now it grated on his conscious.  Plumb thought of the many lonely hours the sailor had spent on a long wooden table in the bowels of the ship carefully weaving the fabric together, making sure the parachute was just right and going to great lengths to make it as precise as can be, knowing that somebody’s life depended on it.  Only now, does Plumb have a full appreciation for what this anonymous man did and he now goes around the world as a motivational speaker asking people to recognize, who’s packing your parachute.

I have a friend who set up a couple 20 years ago.  He told me something incredible.  Every single year on their anniversary, this couple not only get one another gifts but they get my friend, their shadchan, matchmaker, a gift as well.  For their big anniversary they got him a big gift recognizing that the happiness they have together would never have happened without his bothering to set them up.

I know someone who received scholarships from the schools he attended growing up from elementary school through graduate school.  When he became financially successful, the first thing he did was write a beautiful thank you note and make donations to each of the schools that helped give him a chance.

Have we thanked those who contributed to the lives we are blessed to live?  Imagine if our kindergarten teacher got a note from us thanking her for nurturing us with love.  Imagine if our high school principal, our childhood pediatrician, our housekeeper growing up who cleaned our room, out of the blue got a gesture of gratitude showing that we cared enough to track them down and say thank you after all of these years.   Did we ever properly thank the teacher who was patient with us, the orthodontist who straightened out our teeth, the bus driver who drove us?  Did we express enough appreciation to the person who set us up with our spouse, gave us our first job, safely delivered our children?

We all have family, friends, mentors and neighbors, whose efforts are responsible for who we are today.  Freedom means knowing that we didn’t get here on our own.  This Pesach, let’s sing our own personal dayeinu and repair our ingratitude by saying thank you to those who packed our parachutes.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.