Chaplains’ Corner: It isn’t enough, but we can still find something to be grateful for

Seth Wax

This message is adapted from an email sent to Jewish-identifying students last week. 

After three weeks of being inside the house with my 3-year-old daughter while campus has been closed, I can say I’ve accomplished at least one thing: I’ve taught her to sing the Passover Seder song “Dayeinu.” 

The truth is, this accomplishment isn’t as impressive as I’m trying to make it out to be. I love my daughter and think she’s amazing, but getting a toddler to sing “Dayeinu” is, truth be told, not very difficult. The tune is incredibly catchy (click on the link above if you haven’t already to find out.) The chorus is only one and a half words, most of which repeat. And it turns out that you can teach a child any simple song if you play it on repeat for two hours. 

“Dayeinu” is one of the most popular Passover songs not only because it’s very easy to sing, but also because of its message of gratitude. The song enumerates a series of acts that God performed for the Israelites both during and after the Exodus. Each stanza concludes with the word dayeinu, or “It would have been enough for us.” At the Passover Seder, the first of which takes place on Wednesday night, April 8, Jewish people around the world will recount how God took the Israelites out of Egypt, killed the firstborn of the ancient Egyptians, split the Sea of Reeds, fed the newly freed slaves with manna, and gave the gifts of the Day of Rest (Shabbat) and the Torah. Each time we recount one of these experiences in the song, we say, “If we only received this gift from God, dayeinu. It would have been enough for us.” In this way, those sitting around the Seder table express gratitude and say that every step of the journey out of slavery was miraculous. That if we had only gotten that much, it would have been enough for us, and we are grateful. 

But of course, each step on its own would not have been enough. If the Israelites had been freed from slavery but were then trapped at the Sea of Reeds and recaptured as slaves as the Egyptian army chased them down, the Exodus never would have happened. If the Israelites had only been freed from Egypt but not, for example, received manna as food during the wilderness journey for 40 years, they would not have survived all those years (for, it turns out, you do need to eat in the wilderness). To say that just one act of kindness by God for the Israelites would have been enough simply isn’t true. 

This year, we are all experiencing a global pandemic in which life and death truly are at stake for us and for billions of people around the world. It also shapes how I understand the rituals, texts and songs of the Passover Seder. So when I look at the text of “Dayeinu,” I am reminded that it was written hundreds of years after the events they purport to describe. Whoever wrote the words of the song had in his or her hands a narrative, a myth that explained the past. The poet knew what happened and, more importantly, what was going to happen to the Israelites as they took the journey to freedom.  

And yet, as they moved through the experience of leaving Egypt themselves, the Israelites themselves never felt the same sense of security or certainty. After over 200 years of slavery, witnessing plague after plague strike the Egyptians and not knowing if and when they would leave bondage, standing at the Sea of Reeds and not having any sense that it would split open to reveal dry land allowing them to march through, walking through the wilderness and worrying if there would be food tomorrow, the Israelites at no point ever knew exactly how their story would end. Would they die? Would they ever reach their destination?  

Those of us who sit at the Seder table, who sing the song and tell their story, know how their story ends. The author of “Dayeinu” knew how their story ends. But the Israelites did not. As they left slavery in Egypt, they walked into the unknown, taking step after step with trepidation and uncertainty, perhaps with faith, perhaps with great doubt, and no small measure of fear, not knowing where they were going, what would happen to them, and how they and their loved ones would fare. 

At this moment in time, we all are facing immense uncertainty, the likes of which most of us have never faced in our lives before. We do not know how long this pandemic will last. We do not know the ways it will continue to affect us and the people we know and love, and we don’t know what our collective future holds. We hope and pray that the efforts of medical personnel, government officials and ordinary people all over the world will be able to do enough to slow and stop the spread of the virus. We can and should be grateful for the sacrifices that have been made, and we are already mourning those who have died because of this terrible virus. But unlike the author of “Dayeinu,” we don’t know how our story and the story of this pandemic will end. 

In recent days, I have wondered what the song “Dayeinu” might offer to help us as we navigate these uncertain times, and I want to modestly offer one possibility: For each thing we have in our lives that nourishes us or fills our souls, we can say Dayeinu. Not that acknowledging the blessings in our lives will make any of the challenges wrought by the coronavirus go away, and not that it will negate the pain we have and will continue to experience. Rather, in some small measure, we can be grateful, and feel more human — more grounded, more connected to the flow of blessing that always sustains us, even when we are at risk, like we are today — when we note and acknowledge that which we can be grateful for. 

To say, for the efforts of our friends and family who support us, entertain us and help us get through each day, Dayeinu, we are grateful. 

For the heroic work of the administration, faculty and staff of Williams College, who have worked tirelessly to keep us all safe, connected and learning in these times, Dayeinu, we are grateful. 

For the medical professionals and other workers in the hospitals and in the field who put themselves at risk while striving to save the lives of others, Dayeinu, we are grateful. 

For those companies and businesses that are trying to keep their employees at work and for the government programs that provide some (but nowhere near enough) financial support for the millions of people now out of work, Dayeinu, we are grateful (even as we fervently demand more of a safety net and more support for those who desperately need it). 

For those who work in transport, delivery, food production, telecommunications, and all the other industries that nourish and sustain us and keep us connected in dangerous times, for those who volunteer to bring food to those who cannot leave their homes, Dayeinu, we are grateful. 

May we keep in our minds and our hearts all that we are grateful for, and may we seek to ensure the wellbeing and safety of all beings at this time. 

Rabbi Seth Wax is the College’s Jewish Chaplain.