Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The thought

which occurred to me in the comments to the previous post will now officially be blogged.

I have finally gotten an answer to a question that's been bugging me for 10 years or more. Part of the seder is not just running through the official book (the Haggada, for the curious). Some people's seder works that way - read what you have to, no discussion, eat, go to bed. We've never done it that way in my family, and I think I'd feel a bit gypped if we didn't extrapolate a bit.

Anyway, there's a song called "Dayenu", meaning literally "it would have been enough for us." At least that's how it was always translated to me. It's a litany of things that happened to the Jews, followed by the refrain "Dayenu" - as follows: "If He had taken us out of Egypt, but not taken us through the Red Sea, it would have been enough." "If He had taken us through the Red Sea, but not shown us miracles, Dayenu" etc, etc.

The line that always bothered me was "If he had taken us to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah, it would have been enough." The Rabbinic sources make clear that Mount Sinai was not the largest or most impressive; quite the contrary, it was a smallish mountain, oxymoronic as that may be. So there's no real reason God would have taken the Jews there specifically. Presumably he wasn't interested in showing the Jews the scenery. So why are they there? One reason only - to receive the Torah, God's book of laws.

So why on earth would it have been enough for us to show up at Sinai? There's no point in being at that one spot if not to receive the word of God - why would we say Dayenu? I'm pleased to say I finally got what I consider a good answer to this one - like I say, it's been bugging me for a long time. David Klinghoffer (who I mentioned here in my personal review of his new book, which I recommend you read) sent out an article he wrote that finally resolve this one for me. I'll let David's words explain, rather than saying it less elegantly:

What? Didn’t I just say that freeing us from Egypt would have been pointless had God not then given us the Commandments?

The solution lies in seeing that Hebrew is not only compact but precise. Dayenu–“It would have been enough for us,” for us specifically, the “us” who were victims of Egyptian enslavement, escaped being chattel, who would have been happy simply to be out from under the burden of pharaoh’s subjugation.

But would it have been enough for God, or for humanity, if the Lord had merely brought us up from Egypt and left us, free, at the foot of Mt. Sinai without giving us the Torah? Human history was meant to be the history of our priesthood in service of mankind. The foundation, the constitution, of our priesthood is Torah. For mankind, a Jewish people freed from slavery but unacquainted with Torah would not have been enough.

It's the US part that I hadn't quite grasped. After all that slavery and murdered babies and suffering, we would have been happy with just a weekend off once in a while. So, God wants to take us to a mountain? A-OK, as long as there's no slave labor - Dayenu indeed. God, of course, has other plans for us, which is why we were brought to Sinai for a higher purpose.

It's nice to get an answer to a nagging problem.