a spread of the lyrics handwritten in Hebre with bird-headed figures in the margins
"Dayenu" as it appears in the famous German 13th-century "bird head haggadah" (Photo/Wikimedia-Sodabottle CC BY-SA 3.0)

Dayenu! How much spiritual progress is truly enough?

Chol Hamoed Pesach
Exodus 33:12-34:26
Numbers 28:19-25
Ezekiel 37:1-14

“Dayenu,” the original “Stairway to Heaven,” is perhaps the most popular of all the Passover songs sung at the seder table. It is also the most puzzling.

Ostensibly, it is a song about gratitude and thankfulness for the many miracles and kindnesses that God bestowed upon our ancestors, from the time of the Exodus through the 40-year sojourn in the Sinai desert until they reached the Promised Land.

Yet, when we read carefully through the song, we are struck by the notion that a number of the verses seem either unimportant at best or somewhat insignificant at worst in the context of the grand scheme of the Exodus

“Had he slain their [Egyptian] firstborn, but had not given us their wealth: Dayenu!” (It would have been enough.)

Really? After centuries of backbreaking slavery, the moment they had dared to dream would finally come true, when our ancestors were freed, was it all about the money?

“Had he split the sea for us, but not led us through on dry land: Dayenu!”

The splitting of the sea is considered one of the greatest miracles of our history. Is the haggadah insinuating that even if the sea had been split in two, but the ground in between was not totally dry, just a little damp and muddy, it wouldn’t be a Dayenu moment?

“Had he brought us before Mount Sinai, but had not given us the Torah: Dayenu!”

For what other purpose would we have been brought there? What other significant experience happened at Sinai, other than the giving of Ten Commandments?

Seder means order, and there are 15 steps from Kadesh, the Kiddush, to Nirtzah, the prayer that God will accept our service. When the Temple was built in Jerusalem upon Mount Moriah, there were 15 steps that led from the courtyard into the Temple. So, too, there are 15 stanzas in the “Dayenu” poem, corresponding to those 15 steps.

Each Dayenu is not a random thank-you for a particular event; instead, like the steps of the seder, each conveys a continuous yet precise process of physical and spiritual climbing higher and higher.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994) explains that “Dayenu” isn’t just a nice song; it has a much deeper message, illustrated by the following parable told by the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.

There once was a king who lived in a great palace with many rooms and chambers, staffed by sentries guarding unauthorized people from entering without permission.

Several groups of people desired to enter and see the king. The first group, upon seeing the guards, became fearful and fled.

A second group had no fear of the guards; they got past the sentries but were distracted by the king’s vast collections of art and treasure. They enjoyed such satisfaction about making it inside that they got swept up by the experience and missed the opportunity to try and see the king himself.

The final group had one desire: to see the king. So they went from room to room seeing all the wonderful things the others were stuck on, but they were focused on their mission and kept searching until they reached the king’s chamber.

This, the rebbe teaches, is the journey of all of us. We desire to have a relationship with the King of Kings, but we are hesitant and even a bit fearful of what that commitment may mean. We may become stuck at a certain level of Jewish observance because we feel it’s Dayenu! It’s enough for us.

How many of us are like those in the parable, exploring all that the palace of Judaism has to offer? We are satisfied with roaming around and finding a comfort level with the parts of Judaism that appeal to us, but we lack the conviction and will to push ourselves to go deeper and challenge our status quo. Instead, we shout, “Dayenu! I have as much Judaism in my life as I can handle.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches us a deeper interpretation of the song “Dayenu.” Some steps may feel insignificant compared with others. However, when we say “Dayenu” to small or even trivial spiritual progress, and convince ourselves that this is our Jewish limit, it is because we become caught up in the distractions of life, and are unwilling to cross new thresholds. If we dig deeper into our soul we will find the courage to keep going from step to step through all 15 steps until we reach the top of the mountain and reach the last stanza of “Dayenu.” Then we may enter the Beit Habechirah (the Holy Temple) and meet the king himself.

Chag sameach!

Shlomo Zarchi
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi

Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at rabbizarchi@sfshul.org.