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The Real Meaning of Dayenu
Dayenu is a song of gratitude, of thanksgiving. Each year, while banging on the seder table, we acknowledge 15 major Biblical events and proclaim after each event: “It would have been enough!” The singing of Dayenu is usually the highlight of my family’s seder.
But this year was different. The banging was not as loud. The singing was not as vibrant.
A voice was missing.
A week before Passover, my grandmother, Carol Greenberg, at 85, lost her battle with pancreatic cancer. None of us were ready to say goodbye. There had not been enough time.
How could we sing Dayenu while wanting so much more? This year, it didn’t seem like enough.
How could we sing Dayenu without my grandmother’s kneidelach?
As an avid cook, my grandmother loved preparing the seder meal. Over lunch a few weeks ago, I asked her how many meals she thought she had cooked over the course of her life. She told me that it was impossible to know, but when she lived in Israel – for 14 years – she figured she must have cooked more than “3000 meals.” She had no regrets. She was “still learning” and “still cooking.”
Some of my best memories with my grandmother are in the kitchen. She would interweave stories of her life with instructions on how to bake the mandelbrodt and cook the lokshen kugel. She was always encouraging. Even as I burned the kugel, my grandmother assured me that I was on my way “to becoming a gourmet chef.” I’m not so sure.
This year, without my grandmother to help prepare the seder, the kneidelach sunk to the bottom of the pot, nowhere near as fluffy as her matzoh balls would have been – even though I used her recipe. Yet, I could hear her voice: “All you need is more practice.”
My grandmother’s life suggests she is right. Up until the day she died, she never stopped practicing. She never stopped learning. She enjoyed experimenting and was always up for something new.
“Remember,” my grandmother wrote in a handwritten cookbook, “Cooking is fun and some of the most famous recipes were created by mistakes, imagination, and the willingness to experiment.”
These instructions didn’t just apply to her kitchen. My grandmother cooked the way she lived.
In 1977, she discovered through the Jewish Agency that a group of artists was trying to establish an art colony in Ma'alot, Israel. My grandmother, a designer and artist, but also someone who believed deeply in the rights of the Jewish people to a state, packed up her apartment in New York and, at 49, was off to Tel Aviv.
She was a pioneer and believed there was something to learn from every new experience, every new person, every new vegetable. My grandmother never met a food she didn’t like. She used to say to me, “You are what you eat, and well, I guess I am the entire shuk.”
My grandmother was also courageous and she knew she was not perfect. She understood that life was a journey, that it was important to keep innovating, to keep improving.
“Stretching a new meal when the unexpected arrives is a big pain,” she wrote in that same handwritten cookbook, “but sometimes you invent a new dish along the way.”
Fifteen years ago, at 70, she admitted to herself and those who loved her that she was an alcoholic. She went into a program for help, and from that day on never took another sip of alcohol. My grandmother understood that it was never too late to improve. She also realized that it was also never too late to help others, so she became a volunteer and mentor in Alcoholics Anonymous.
My grandmother never stopped learning. She never stopped cooking.
She never had enough of life. We never had enough of her. But she understood the true meaning of Dayenu.
Reflecting on her life, I now understand what Dayenu really means.
“It would have been enough” does not give us an excuse to be complacent. It does not give us an excuse to stop learning, to stop improving. It does not mean that we should be satisfied with the current state of affairs.
Instead, 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. Dayenu is not about being satisfied with what we have, it’s about feeling the fullness of the incomplete and knowing we must push on.
Next year, I hope my family can return to the seder table, with my grandmother in mind, and chant Dayenu louder than ever before. It is what she would want.
Sara Greenberg, a native of Philadelphia, currently lives in Cambridge, Mass., where she is pursuing a joint masters degree in business and public policy from the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School.