“Override on register five.”
So much for my quick stop at the supermarket, I thought. Why do I always manage to choose the slowest checkout line?
I sighed and glanced at the magazine rack. Tucked among the jumble of celebrity scandals, fashion advice, and crossword puzzles was a booklet with Hebrew lettering. Intrigued, I picked it up.
Above the cover image of matzoh bread and wine was the title “Passover Haggadah.” I flipped through the pages, which were printed in both Hebrew and English; the booklet seemed to be a guide to the Jewish holiday of Passover, published by a kosher food company.
“How much is this?” I asked the clerk, holding up the booklet.
Slightly annoyed, she called out, “Price check on register five.”
The next day, I showed the guide to my friend Adina, who is Jewish.
Adina smiled as she leafed through it. “The Haggadah is the text of our Passover service, or Seder, when we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt,” she explained. “You can see from the English translation that it has different prayers and passages from Scripture – what Christians call the Old Testament. For us, it’s simply the Hebrew Bible. Where did you get this?” she added, somewhat amused by my interest in her faith.
I told my friend I’d always been fascinated with Passover, and that Catholics believe Jesus celebrated a meal — possibly a Passover meal — with his friends the night before he died, which became the basis of our Mass.
Then, pointing to a section midway through the booklet, I asked her to translate a word that had caught my eye: dayenu.
“It would have been enough,” she answered. “That’s what dayenu means. We recount the sequence of events in the Exodus – the escape from Egypt, the parting of the sea, the manna – and we thank God for each one. So we begin by saying, ‘If God had brought us out of Egypt, and had not inflicted judgment upon the Egyptians, it would have been sufficient,’ and then we respond, ‘Dayenu.’”
The word resonated throughout the rest of my day, and I searched online to learn more about its significance.
“Dayenu provides a call to mindfulness about the way we currently lead our lives,” writes Rabbi Joshua Ratner. “We live in an era when … consumption is unfettered by any internal sense of restraint, from the amount of soda we can drink to how much money Wall Street executives can make.”
Rabbi Ratner’s words parallel those of Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si.’”
“People can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending,” the Holy Father observes (no. 203). Although he doesn’t specifically cite the word dayenu, Pope Francis asserts “we need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more’” (no. 222).”
He pleads for “a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us” (no. 222).
Dayenu also invites us to remember that spiritual restoration, like nature, has its own divinely ordained rhythms to which man must surrender. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag points out that “each significant stage in the process of redemption deserves our recognition and requires that we praise God for it.”
Rather than focusing on what God hasn’t yet done in our lives, or demanding that he conform his plans to our timetables, we need to thank him for the work he has accomplished so far – knowing that “the one who began a good work in (us) will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
At the same time, we inevitably remain dissatisfied with our present state, longing for the fulfillment that only perfect union with God can bring. Writing to the Philippians, St. Paul confessed that he was torn between earth, where “fruitful labor” awaited him, and his heavenly home, where “being with Christ is far better” (Philippians 1:22-23).
The concept of dayenu captures this exquisite tension between contentment with our current lot and the desire for perfection. According to author Sara Greenberg, “dayenu means that we should take a moment to celebrate and appreciate each step of our personal and collective journey as if it were enough, but then continue on … it’s about feeling the fullness of the incomplete.”
My friend Adina and her family, along with millions worldwide, will soon celebrate Passover. As they gather at their dining room table, they will sing the refrain of dayenu to honor 15 acts of divine kindness that comprise the Exodus story.
May the refrain of dayenu echo in our hearts, as we give thanks for his mercy while pressing on to the fullness of his glory.
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of St. William Parish.