Dayenu: Radical Gratitude

Dayenu: Radical Gratitude
Illuminated manuscript style image of the Hebrew word dayenu

Dayenu —enough! It’s an expression of radical gratitude. And a good foundation for the work of teshuvahrepentance, repair, return. I will explain. But first, a story.

Grateful for the Geese

Click the image to watch & listen instead of read

It’s a hot summer day. I’m sitting at a bench under a tree near Riley Park Community Centre, at the Little Mountain baseball field, just at the foot of Queen Elizabeth park. You may know that the city decided, a few years ago, not to fill the duck pond at Queen E in the summertime. This is great for drinking water conservation. But it is terrible for the birds who have relied on the pond for generations.

You might also know that the city installed irrigation in the sports fields. So the fields are moist, green meadows amid parched brown lawns. No comment.

On this particular day, the neighborhood geese are managing reasonably well. For a while, they forage in the damp grass, under the bright sun. Then they rest a bit under the shady tree. And when they start to pant from thirst again, they head back out to the grass.

And I am so excited to be near these intelligent animals. I feel so grateful to be sharing the cool shade with them. My heart opens to the beauty of our magnificent universe.

Grateful for the Water

And then I notice a little movement out of the corner of my left eye. At the clogged up water fountain. A crow is drinking from the water stuck in the bowl.

But, uh oh, the geese notice it too. A little gang of four approaches the fountain. Step by step, they warn the crow, they threaten it. She makes a brave stand, but then gives up and hops off. The geese make a circle around the fountain. They crane their necks but their beaks just cannot reach the bowl. They keep circling, thinking, hmmm, how can we make this work? But with their big wings and webbed feet they can’t manage a short power jump.

Click the image to watch the drama

Well, I am so fascinated by this drama of the thirsty birds, that I almost forget I have hands. But I do remember! And then I start scooping handfuls of water onto the ground. Turns out the water fountain actually works, so I share more and more water. The water pools into little ponds and creeks. And the thirsty geese come over and drink. They even take turns—in a snippy goose way of course, “you’ve had enough, it’s my turn now, so get out of my way!”

Then I notice a young man standing nearby. When I look at him, he says, very shyly, “I want to get a drink of water, but I’m afraid of them.”

Geese may be fearsome creatures, but I was grateful for them. And I saw they were in need, so I helped them.

Why it is hard to say Dayenu

A few days later, a book called Radical Gratitude shows up in our Little Free Library. The author, Mary Jo Leddy, talks about why it is so hard, in our time and our place, to feel that anything is enough. To feel that we are enough.

Many people, she says, simply don’t have enough money for shelter and food. They work so many hours but their hourly wages do not add up to much. And their hearts break because they cannot set up a stable home for the people they love.

Other people are not so at risk economically. But their stability comes from salaried professional jobs or small businesses where there is simply no concept of “enough.” For them, a successful project is one that creates more work and more expectations.

A few people have properties and investments that could sustain their families for generations. And yet—the world of finance is based on endless growth, on the idea that nothing is ever enough.

And all around us, people are selling, selling, and selling. So are we. And we all try to convince each other: if you just had one more gadget, one more nice shirt, one more training seminar, one more membership, then it would be enough. Then, we would finally be efficient and beautiful and wise and supported.

Teshuvah can be hard, too

Of course we don’t believe this kind of advertising. Except sometimes. And then, life becomes a not-fun-at-all funhouse mirror. Everywhere we look, we see our own deficiencies. And then—this is me now, not Mary Jo Leddy—it becomes hard to do teshuvah. Almost paralyzing.

If I am not enough as I am, and no one could really love me, not even God, why buy into any of the High Holiday concepts? Why take them seriously?

If I lack so much, what should my teshuvah focus on? Becoming a better person? Repairing relationships? Vowing to do more tikkun olam, world repair?

What kind of tikkun olam vows might I actually follow through on? If everyone and everything is so broken, where should I put my energy? What matters most to me?

And how will I find the answers?

What is Dayenu?

Mary Jo Leddy has many suggestions. One is a spiritual practice she calls dayenu.

It is based on the piyyut, the liturgical poem, Dayenu. Normally we sing Dayenu at the Passover Seder. It says things like, “If God had only split the Red Sea, but not taken us through it to dry land, dayenu! It would have been enough for us!”

This is of course absurd. It would be like the geese saying, “If God had only shown us a bowl of water we can’t reach, but not set it out for us to drink, dayenu!” And, if it happened at the Red Sea, our ancestors would have all drowned. And besides, we know the Torah stories. The people are always afraid. Always complaining that they don’t have enough food, water, or strength to make it.

So, when we sing Dayenu at the Seder, we sometimes laugh. We know that the poet, who lived at least 1,000 years ago, was exploring radical gratitude. But we still laugh sometimes.

Dayenu as a spiritual practice

But what if we took Dayenu seriously? What if we lingered on every extraordinary moment of life and said to ourselves, “This miracle is enough”?

Mary Jo Leddy suggests we try it, like this (and this is almost a direct quotation):

Review your life and stop at any point with the prayer dayenu. For example:

Old black and white polaroid photo of a four year old child holding an infant for a post about dayenu - gratitude
My brother Freddie holding infant me. He died 7 weeks later.

If I had only been born but not had a baby sister, dayenu. If I had only had a baby sister but not had my first friend, dayenu. If I had only seen one snowfall but never seen the pink sky on a prairie night, dayenu. And so on.

It’s hard, isn’t it? Especially this example, if you love your sibling, your friend, the prairie sky.

Dayenu in the morning

So try it a bit differently. Use birchot hashachar as a guide. That is the traditional morning blessing series in our Siddur, our prayerbook. The Talmud presents it as the step by step liturgy for getting up out of bed (Berachot 60b). When your alarm clock rings, you say, “Bless you God, you give me wisdom to distinguish day from night.” When you open your eyes, you say, “Bless you God, who gives sight to the blind.”

Try this variation tomorrow morning. When you hear the alarm, say “Thank you God for the cue to wake up. That is all I need, and I will find my way through the day.” When you open you eyes, say, “Thank you God for my senses. With just these precious tools, I will find my way through the day.”

Dayenu and Teshuvah

You do not have to literally believe that you don’t need food, shelter, friends, or money. This is a thought experiment, a spiritual exercise. It’s a way of looking at what really matters to you. A celebration of the important resources you do have. A first step of understanding what you really want to work towards, and taking stock of the resources you bring to it.

If I could return to the geese—a trivial example if you want to save humanity, but not if you are a thirsty goose. I knew what I was grateful for. I knew what I had to offer. So I figured out how to make a difference.

It’s a start. And, as Pirkei Avot (2:16) says, “You don’t have to finish the work, but you’re not free to avoid it, either.”

May you have a very deep ten days of teshuvah.

***Originally offered as a dvar Torah (sermon) at Or Shalom Synagogue, Sept 17, 2023, Tishrei 2, second day of Rosh Hashanah, 5784.

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