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Dayenu? Enough Already.

If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke, it might just be ‘Dayenu,’ the Passover punch line that is never enough

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Shutterstock.)
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One of the most enjoyable parts of the Passover ceremony is the singing, invariably full-throated in my experience, of all 15 verses of “Dayenu”:

Had he brought us out from Egypt, and not carried out judgments against them—Dayenu, it would have sufficed us! Had he carried out judgments against them, and not against their idols—Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!  Had he destroyed their idols, and not smitten their first born, Dayenu …

… Enough already!

That, of course, though we thought our comical uncles blasphemous when they said it at the Seder table—“Enough already, when do we eat?”—is what the word Dayenu means. “It would have sufficed”; “it would have been enough”; “we can imagine a point at which we would have been satisfied”—except that as a people we are never satisfied.

In the midst of gratitude there is always a little something else we feel we have to ask for. Isn’t this what the Dayenu means? Hence the number of rogue, shopping-list Dayenus that spring up every day: feminist Dayenus, gay Dayenus, Zionist and anti-Zionist Dayenus, even, I recall reading, a Dayenu praising the invasion of Iraq—“If He had destroyed the Ba’ath party idols, and not smitten Uday and Qusay—Dayenu, it would have been enough for us.” The Dayenu is a please masquerading as a thank-you. We give thanks in order to ask for more.

We sing Dayenu at a solemn moment in the Seder service, soon after we have spilled a drop of wine from our glasses, one drop for each plague. It is a song of praise to the Almighty, thanking Him for our deliverance from slavery in Egypt and for the many gifts, including the Sabbath and the Torah, He bestowed upon us thereafter. As such, it is a spiritual high point of the service. Yet we sing it with immense gusto and, at many a Seder I’ve attended, mirth. A mirth that is over and above the pleasure we take in the inordinacy of God’s munificence. Why? Because we know that we are making a great joke at our own expense.

Without doubt it is owing to God’s bounty and protection that we are in a position to be making jokes at all. But, as with all good jokes, there is a whiff of terror in this one, too. How funny would it have been had God left the job half-done—and each verse pivots around a job half-done—how funny will it be when the things He doesn’t do outweigh the things He does?

Could we say that this dread is no less psychological than historical? We fear abandonment. What happens when the giving stops?

The Dayenu is a series of self-generating conditional clauses, composed, if you like, in that most kop-dreying of all tenses, the Judaeo-hypothetic-preconditional, in which problems are imagined in advance of their occurring, imagined, indeed, in spite of their having been averted, and there is no fathoming the sequence of causation: Do our travails precede our giving thanks, or does our giving thanks occasion our travails? In one sense, our gratitude is forever playing catch-up with His infinite magnanimity; but in another—driven on by the rhythmic expectations of those clauses—it is we who are pushing Him to go on showering us with more favors.

Yet there is purpose in this nudging. Superfluous though we insist each of God’s favors and blessings to us was, the truth is we would have been in serious trouble without any of them. For where would have been the use of His leading us to the Red Sea had He not parted it; or our wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, had He not provided us with Manna? We say the one would have sufficed without the other, but in fact it would not. Thus the song is as much a rehearsal of complaints we might have voiced and might voice yet, as it is a hymn of praise.

Built into this magnificent song of gratitude, therefore, is the fact of our colossal ingratitude. Nothing is enough for us. Not because we are vainglorious or greedy, but because our appetite for intellectual dissatisfaction, like our apprehension of disaster, knows no bounds. Call it the ravenousness of reasoning—the rabbinic “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.” Call it our love of striking bargains. Call it hyperbole. Call it what you like, it is the bedrock of Jewish comedy. As it is the bedrock of our faith.

The Jewish joke is above all a strategy for survival. It looks, of necessity, to the future. It anticipates a woe before that woe is visited upon us. It gets in first with the criticism and the cruelty. If anybody is going to knock us around it won’t be the Cossacks, it will be ourselves. So that while a Jewish joke appears to be the perfecting of self-denigration, it is actually the opposite. It is the fruit of a perpetual vigilance and in the process demonstrates an intelligence that is, because it has to be, unremitting.

If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke—and who is to say that the Dayenu is not it?—it would never finish. Ours is a religion of suspense. We wait and wait, for a God who cannot show Himself and a Messiah we would rather never came. We await an end, as we await a punch line, to a narrative that has no end. And just when we thought it was all over, it begins again. What are the last words of the Dayenu? “It would have sufficed us …” But by now our ear demands another clause, another gift, another setback for God to overcome. There is no final thank-you because there is no final sufficiency.

In this way, the grammar of Dayenu hovers on the edge of tragedy. Macbeth’s numbed response to his wife’s death—“There would have been a time for such a word”—gives us insight into how a conditional tense can turn a might-have-been into a cannot-any-longer-be. We can run out of feeling as we can run out of hope. We can lose the words in which to express our own humanity. We too have been in Macbeth’s position. We have supped full with horrors and believed that words will no longer—perhaps should no longer—come.

“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future,” declaimed the Anglo-Catholic poet T. S. Eliot. Jewish time is more vertiginous still because of the element of joking we impart to it. “Oy, am I thirsty,” cries the old Jewish man. “Oy, am I thirsty!” Alarmed bystanders give him a drink. Gratefully, he glugs it down. “Oy,” he cries, “was I thirsty!”

Then and now change places in the absurd hyperbole of suffering. But at least to be able to say we were thirsty is a liberation, if not from the memory of thirst, then from thirst itself. This liberation is what the Dayenu commemorates. The comic repetition of “it would have sufficed us” asserts that there still is time for such a word, that it will go on sufficing whatever happens. In this, does it not epitomize the spirit of re-telling, re-making, and re-remembering that is the Passover itself?

***

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Marc says:

This is the most nonsensical article masquerading as intellectualism that I have ever read on Tablet- and considering that Tablet publishes an awful lot of crappy articles, this establishes a new low.

Gary Susman says:

Delightful piece. The flip side, I suppose, is when Abraham bargains with God to spare Sodom. (Yes, even just 10 good men will be enough — dayenu — for Me not to destroy the city.) Same joke structure, very different punchline.

A. Silverman says:

Odd to juxtapose T.S. Eliot, an anti-Semite and another transplant to London (I mis-typed it Loondon and then corrected it — perhaps I shouldn’t), with the “Oy” of an old Jew.

gershon hepner says:

ENOUGH IS NOT ENOUGH

Enough we know is not enough,
although we falsely claim
it is. Of course it’s really tough
having to declaim
each year the same hyperbole,
before we face with horror
reality we herbally
correct when eating moror,
realizing enough applies
to what is bitter, but
the good dayenus are all lies
that we don’t dare to cut
out of the haggadah. This stuff
is meant to praise Hashem,
who of such praise can’t have enough.
Just saying “Ibidem”
is not enough from Him, He needs
to hear the praise again
and yet again, and then recedes
before we say amen,
perhaps to watch how Eliyahu
drinks so much wine. It’s tough
for him—from New York to Oahu
he may not say “Enough!”

Gershon Hepner
gwhepner@yahoo.com

Marc Grossberg says:

Actually, I made up my favorite Pesach joke – I make everyone at the Seder sing Cole Porter’s Passover Song
Had Gadya under my skin
Had Gadya deep in the heart of me . . . .

philip mann says:

Marc;

They still let you lead ?

I made up a poem for Rosh HashanaH,to the tune of There was a crooked Man.

If you ask nicely….

JCarpenter says:

Thank you for a thoughtful and timely piece. It is more than enough.
Peace—JC

Every great joke needs a great set up … and you hardly mention the set up of Dayenu at all – the set up that makes it a joke -about which you certainly correct.
You say “We sing Dayenu at a solemn moment in the Seder service, soon after we have spilled …one drop for each plague.”
Yes, it’s soon after that, but immediately after we read of the Rabbis of the talmud trying to outdo each other with extravagant, geometric hyperbole: You say 10 plagues? I say 50! and how do we know this… 50?! N, 200, NO 250!!
DAYENU!
(miss that and you’ve missed the joke…)

Leonard Kaster says:

This particular issue is absolutely outstanding, not that any of the others aren’t good, but this one, “Chodosh u’Dvash

Chag Pesach Sameach,
Eleazer Ben Dovid haLevi

Barrie Rockman says:

As allways, great stuff from Howard.Pity I can’t find him in The Indepependent any more. Has he been “Dayenued”?

byron says:

The big joke of the song is that it is terribly repetitive, and u just want it to end. The name of the song itself is a comically desperate wish that the song will finally fucking end, already.

Scott-Martin Kosofsky says:

Mr. Jacobson, try this one on for size. This is a Dayenu written by the survivors of the Shoah living in the DP camps near Munich, for the first Pesach after their liberation. It was published through the largesse of the U.S. Third Army, then under the command of the kindly Lucian Truscott, who replaced the Haman George S. Patton. It was republished in 1999and 2000 in an edition called “A Survivors’ Haggadah,” edited by Saul Touster.

DAYENU
We would have been content.
Had He scattered us among the nations but had not given us the First Crusade, we would have been content.
Had He given us the First Crusade but not the Second, we would have been content. Had He given us the Second Crusade but not the Blood Libel, we would have been content.
Had He given us the Blood Libel but not the persecutions of the Third Crusade, we would have been content.
Had He given us the persecutions of the Third Crusade, but not the Badge of Shame, we would have been content.
Had He given us the Badge of Shame but not the persecutions of the Black Plague, we would have been content.
Had He given us the persecutions of the Black Plague but not the Inquisition, we would have been content.
Had He given us the Inquisition but not the pogroms of 1648–49, we would have been content.
Had He given us the pogroms of 1648–49 but not the slaughter of 1919 in Ukraine, we would have been content.
Had He given us the slaughter in Ukraine but not Hitler, we would have been content. (continued next posting . . .)

Scott-Martin Kosofsky says:

(continued from previous posting)

Had He given us Hitler but no ghettos, we would have been content.
Had He given us ghettos but no gas chambers and crematoria, we would have been content.
Had He given us gas chambers and crematoria, but our wives and children had not been tortured, we would have been content.
Had our wives and children been tortured but we had not been forced into hard bondage, we would have been content.
Had we been forced into hard bondage but not been made to die of hunger, we would have been content.
Had we been made to die of hunger but not of disease and torture, we would have been content.

Mr. Jacobson wrote: “…..in which problems are imagined in advance of their occurring, ….”

It reminds me of the Jewish telegram joke recounted in the book “The Wandering Who,”
by Gilad Atzmon. (Am I allowed to mention that book?)

The telegram reads: “Start worrying. Details
to follow.”

If you want a good laugh read my sketch:
“God Is a Goy? Oy!” I think googling it would work. Or go to:
http://www.youtube.com/1WOM
WOM stands for Wise Old Man. (Me)
If you don’t like my comments on Tablet you can get revenge by commenting on the sketch.

Re Kosofsky’s comment of April 8:
“Had we been forced into hard bondage but not been made to die of hunger, we would have been content.” Jews died of starvation
(and disease) in German concentration camps
but not because of German villainy. They died, as did many German civilians, because of the villainy of the Allies inhuman bombing campaign. Picture our hero Jimmy Stewart flying high over German
cities, dropping bombs and returning to a
nice warm bed in England.

The Jews and the Germans suffered also because of Stalin’s demand on the Allies to
demand unconditional surrender. Jews demanded that Germany be turned into an agricultural nation, which would have caused chaos and German deaths. Was that nice?

BTW the Nuremberg trials accused Germans of
genocide using gas chambers in places like Dachau and Buchenwald. Germans died under that accusation. Now even the “Shoa Business” people have to admit that there were no such death camps in Germany itself.
Their Shoah boat moved east to Poland and Auschwitz. Any witness in a trial who changed their story so blatantly would be in jail for perjury but Jews get away with it because you own the media (and Gentiles are stupid and cowardly).

Go to the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. The maps show no death camps in Germany.

Hey! How about some reparations for those unjust German deaths at Nuremberg? Israel,
send back a submarine or two and lots of money. There’s a Jewish joke for you.

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Re Marc’s comment: Thank you, Marc. Tablet indeed “publishes an awful lot of crappy articles, [and] this establishes a new low”. How can one even call “Dayenu” “a perfect Jewish joke” and say, “Enough [a]lready.”? G-d (B”H) doesn’t owe us bupkis!

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Dayenu? Enough Already.

If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke, it might just be ‘Dayenu,’ the Passover punch line that is never enough

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