Dayenu Reconsidered

Posted: April 22, 2008 in Mennonite, Morgantown, Passover, Religion, Sarah Einstein
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The problem with praying in English instead of Hebrew is that the words have meaning beyond the sound of them–their rhythm in the cant.  Praying in a language one does not speak is a different thing all together.

And so I look back on my most recent post, the one in which I say that the song Dayenu is my favorite prayer, and am a little horrified.  To me, this is a prayer sung around the seder table… “Ilu hotsi, hostionu, hotsionu mi Mitzrayim, Hotsionu mi Mitzrayim Da-ye-nu…”  It’s the sound of the voices of my family, young and old, frum and gone over to the other side, all together on this one night of the year.  It is the sound of thanks and of saying, “No matter what happens to us from here on out, we have been blessed and we will not complain.”  Although, of course, we will.  Still, it’s a nice thought.

But in writing it all out in English, I am stunned by the actual words of the song.  It’s not that I didn’t know them–I did.  It’s that, sung in Hebrew, I hadn’t thought of their meaning in decades.  Not since I was a little girl in Sunday school, just learning to ask the four questions.  “Why is it that on all other nights, we eat herbs of every kind, but tonight we eat only bitter herbs?”  I am forced to look beyond the meaning of “it would have been enough” to what, in fact, I am saying would have sufficed to make G-d worthy of my worship.

And there, I am forced to ask myself:  is it really enough for me that G-d killed the first born sons of the Egyptians?  Does that make Him fit for worship?  Or is it not enough, not by a long shot?  Don’t I have the right to say, “If You want me to worship You, how about not killing any more infants in my name?  In fact, You could lay off the smiting all together, thank you very much.  Tell the Angel of Death to pass over every door, not just the ones with a smear of lamb’s blood.  Tell him not to come until he’s called by the old, the weary, the ready to die.”  Do I really want to take a drop from my own cup of wine in thankfulness that G-d slew babies to secure my freedom from Egypt, or would I rather be a slave unstained by the blood of all those sons of other mothers?

I will thank G-d for parting the sea, and for allowing me to cross on dry land.  Dayenu.  But must I really thank him also for drowning my oppressors?  Can I not instead wish he had simply gentled them back to their own land, changed by having seen a miracle performed and been shown a kindness?  Must vengeance and murder really be enough for me?  Can I have no hope of peace?

Dayenu is no longer my favorite prayer.  My favorite prayer is the silent one I say among my Mennonite brethren as we light the Peace candle and hold in the light all those in our world afflicted by violence.  Or maybe it is the gentle, steadfast prayer of the Dalai Lama as he turns away, again and again, from a violent struggle for the freedom of his people.   Or maybe it is the prayer you will say for me tonight, afraid for my soul because I have blasphemed.  But it is not a prayer thanking G-d for the deaths of infants or the drowning of enemies.  Not any more.

  1. inktarsia says:

    This one cuts to the shank bone. I love the wordplay in the song (hotsi, hotsionu)–wish I knew way way more Hebrew–but that was my question too. Is it enough? (and there I was again, that gimme Christian) But was it enough for survivors of any era?

    Such a powerful piece, Sarah. Thank you for the image of the Peace candle, for holding suffering in the light, and then opening the door to watch for peace.

  2. michaeldavidjay says:

    God bless you, and שלום. May he grant you, and this crazy world peace. May we all learn to honor the Divine image. I smile to think of the peace candle. I smile too at the struggle of listening to the Sermon on the mount while living in this world.

    I had some thoughts about ודינו myself – mostly about it all being outside my experience as a גױ. I did realize that all mankind is the divine image. I realized that creation is full of beauty and gives us life. Though everything in the passover song is outside my experience — I realized that even a גױ like me can find reasons to say דינו

    God bless you in your pilgrimage.

  3. Kathy says:

    Sarah, I appreciate your thinking and questioning. There are those inconsistencies we all deal with. I think of my own denomination, whose mission statement says war is a last resort, but in reality most denominational leaders and laity support war … as a way to peace. I cannot. Christianity is a religion of love and peace, based on blood sacrifice. I love your image of the Peace candle, and I still love your words about being grateful instead of beseeching.

  4. sarahemc2 says:

    You know, I always took the story of the plagues and it’s goodness for granted… it was only in writing out the English to Dayenu that it really struck me… “If He had killed a bunch of babies to free me from slavery and not also slain their gods… it woudl have been enough.” I have a hard time with G-d committing infanticide.

    Tomorrow is the knitting circle at Church. Feel sorry for the women who are coming in the hopes of idle chatter and cookies and who instead are going to get hit with my metaphysical growing pains. I”ll let you know what they say–I am lucky to attend church with some very wise women.

  5. marcys says:

    What a beautiful statement! I wish the Israeli army would read it.

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