Tonight at sundown, Jews will be sitting down to a Passover Seder, a sacred meal, to recall, celebrate, and dig deeper — if they dare — into the story of the Exodus and its meaning, not only for their own religious history, but for all those who belong to the people Israel. Which means, in the words of the later prophets, all people.
Many of us are familiar with some portions of the Passover observance: the matzoh or unleavened bread, the lamb shank, the bitter herbs, the parsley symbolizing the possibilities for new life, new beginnings. Others may have participated in a Seder and placed ten drops of red wine on our plates standing for the plagues sent by God to convince the Egyptian Pharaoh to release the Jewish slaves from bondage.
What I want to talk about this morning is another, less known, portion of the Haggadah, the Passover story, and that is the Dayenu, the recognition of and giving of blessings for life, no matter what trials. No whatever we have been given to work with.
It is after the telling of the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the Egyptian army being turned back, after Miriam, Moses’ sister, dances as she crosses over the shallow river bed, that Dayenu is sung. The Dayenu is a blessing for all that led to the deliverance of the Jewish people. The traditional Dayenu has fifteen verses, shaped and modified over the centuries: fifteen different thanks and praises. That the first man and first woman were created in the image of God, that would have been enough. That the people were freed from slavery and brought to Mt.Sinai, that would have been enough. That there was manna — bland and tedious as it became — for nourishment, that would have been enough.
Dayenu. Dayenu. Dayenu.
It’s the Zen Koan in the midst of a Bible story. Even before we are freed, we are given enough; we are given what we need. Even before we are given the tablets of laws, we are given enough; we are given what we need. Even before we cross into the Promised Land, even if we never reach it, we are given what we need.
After they escape Egypt, the people sit around in an unfamiliar place and wait for instructions, but the Dayenu tells us if Moses had never gone up on that mountain and brought down the Torah, God in Scripture, it would have been enough. Because it is in our conscious and grateful being and becoming together that we can find Torah. We can find enduring love beyond our individual egos and compassion, seeing holiness in all others. All that is Torah is, after all, written in our own hearts.
The story of the Exodus, the Passover myth, the Dayenu blessings, remind me of the difference between freedom, released from captivity or slavery, from being physically bound or imprisoned — and true liberation. Liberation from all the emotional and social oppressions that keep us captive. The kind of liberation that finally frees us from just surviving, the most superficial safety, and allows for the kind of salvation and redemption that in freeing us, frees the whole world.
This acceptance of what we already have, what we already have in some sense been given, allows us to move to the next moment and receive the next waiting gift.
Wise ones instruct us that if we meet each moment in some sort of ongoing bondage, or if we greet each moment with conditions, judgments, and expectations such as “well, this isn’t quite where we need to be” or “wait a second, this is not what we were promised,” or “Hey, what comes next” we are not available to the next moment. We are held captive in our own prisons of disappointment and suffering.
There is always much that makes us feel uncertain and unsafe, whether individual abuse, or the oppression and abuse of whole groups of people. There are always countries, real and in minds, from which we need escape.
Prejudice is not new. Antisemitism is not new. Racism is not new. Sexism and misogyny, the hatred of women, are not new. Homophobia is not new. The plagues have been unleashed, the boils have festered, the blood spilled. In Rwanda and the Sudan, in school yards and in courthouses. No one is ever fully safe. Every one of us can be liberated.
It has been written that liberation, that which is beyond actual bondage, beyond physical safety, beyond surface freedom, comes in small steps. Dayenu, the prayer of gratitude, teaches us not to despair when the ultimate “end” seems far away. It teaches us that in order to live in the spirit of liberation, as individuals, as a religious community, as a people, we have to fully acknowledge each step in the struggle.
Slavery happened and happens to each one of us. Redemption can happen to each one of us, not by denial — pretending that all is love and light — and not by hiding out in the desert, either in this sanctuary or in our own minds, but by the risk of truth-telling and the release it brings.
Life for most people in most times has been hard, crammed with injustices and wanderings. As the Haggadah reminds us, the story of the Exodus was not just lived once. It repeats itself again and again, not just in the telling. We remain on the journey to liberation. These are the wanderings of the people out of Egypt: from Ramses to Sukkot, from Etiam to Babylon, from Babylon to Spain, from North Africa, in Germany, in Poland, in Russia, in the Americas, in these Southern hills and valleys, composted with ashes and tears, green with spring. These, too, are the wanderings of a people Israel, who are all people.
It takes the pain of letting go of what is known, even when it is enslaving us. And it takes courage, nearly unimaginable courage to go through the desert with gratitude and acceptance.
As poet Marge Piercy writes, the courage to walk out of the pain that is known into the pain of what cannot be imagined, mapless.
Pack nothing. Bring only your determination and your willingness to be liberated. Next year in Jerusalem, next year, liberation and peace for the inhabitants of the world.
Dayenu — blessed be — and Shalom.