One of the highlights of many Seders is the recitation of Dayenu (“it would have been enough”). But would each stage of the Dayenu song really have been enough? You brought us to the sea but didn’t bring us through it (we might have died!)? You brought us to Sinai but didn’t give us the Torah (then what was the purpose)?
Years ago, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag told me that Dayenu is only half a sentence. The rest, implied, is “for us to give thanks.” After all, once the Exodus is accomplished, everything else is icing on the delicious leaving-bondage cake.
Based on the Talmud in Megillah (14a) we can infer that song is directed towards G-d when being freed from slavery and when being saved from death. The Talmud notes that we don’t say Hallel on Rosh Hashana because the books of life and death are open (Rosh Hashana 32b). It’s therefore also not a time to sing Shira (songs of praise). However, the Talmud recounts that when the sea was split, the angels were not allowed to sing while the Israelites did (Sanhedrin 39b). For the Egyptians, books of Life and Death lay open and the angels, advocating perhaps for one side, could not sing a song of thanks; the Israelites, however, were singing for their own salvation!
The splitting of the sea was so momentous that the Talmud tells us even fetuses in the womb sang praise that day. (Ketubot 7b) The people sang that day because of their great trust in G-d, a quality implanted in them by their father Avraham (Shmot Raba Beshalach 23)
The Midrash in Tehillim (119) notes that people who give thanks are “Temimei Derekh,” Chassidim, Yesharim — those whose ways are straight and pure (based on Tehilllim 33:1)
So it behooves us, at this time of year, to ask ourselves what we are thankful for. When we don’t have football, turkey and stuffing (chametz gamur!) to distract us from our true Thanksgiving, let us consider what we can minimally be grateful for, even if this gratitude doesn’t push us to break out in song.
In no particular order, let us remember to be grateful, and when possible to express our gratitude to:
Parents — for the gift of life. If they are alive, for being there for us, for never giving up on us. If they’re no longer alive, for all of the above plus — we thank them through quoting them, thinking about and remembering them, and honoring their legacy through being a positive merit to their presence in this world.
Spouses — for everything. For picking, for believing in me, for believing that I am the person you wanted to spend your life with, for convincing me that I was good enough for you (because heaven knows, I’ve always believed I got the better deal). If no longer with a first spouse, due to death or divorce — for the life we shared, for the children we have, for the good times we had, and even the rough things we went through together. (Even those who are divorced might be grateful for being freed from a marriage that went sour, or for the get that was transferred, hopefully without incident.)
Siblings — For having my back, no matter what; for the close relationships we share that even a spouse doesn’t “get.”
Children — Be grateful to G-d for the ability to have children; so many suffer from infertility. Be grateful for the nachas they gave and continue to give; be grateful for what you learned from them, and continue to learn from them; be grateful that they think you’re the best mother or father in the world; and be grateful for every grandchild they give you.
Friends — Be grateful for friendships that span time and place, kasting 20, 30, 40, 70 or more years. Shooting the breeze, playing mahjongg, going out for dinner, vacations, cruises, seeing your children carry on the friendships you cherish. Be grateful for friends, to whom you can say anything, and they still love you, who say things to you, and you take it to heart and adjust. To whom you turn for advice. And it’s always free.
We must be able to recognize and express our gratitude to G-d often — not necessarily in the form of Hallel or a breakout in song, but in seeing Him in all the good and bad in our lives, and recognizing He has a plan for each of us. Had we only had one gift in our lives, it would have been enough to give thanks. The fact that we have so many should surely be a reason to express gratitude.
If we express gratitude to one another and to the people who matter most in our lives, we will train ourselves to carry a mantle of godliness, bringing good cheer to all who encounter us — our family, our friends, and G-d Himself.