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One of the more perplexing sections of the Haggadah, is the “Dayenu,” A favorite of Jewish kids the world over (perhaps second only to “Ma Nishtana”) Dayenu traces the kindnesses bestowed upon us by Hashem from the early part of the Exodus until our entry into Eretz Yisrael.  At one point we say,


אִלוּ נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת מָמונָם וְלא קָרַע לָנוּ אֶת הַיָּם, דַּיֵינוּ.


“If he had only given us their riches and not split the sea for us, it would have been enough for us.”


Now, whereas the previous stages of the Dayenu could be understood as a graduated “thank you”, this latest stage is somewhat difficult to grasp. After all, Had G-d not imposed such severe plagues on the Egyptians, their gods, nor kill their first born sons, or give us their money, we could have still exited Egypt. But had he given us their money and not split the sea…..we would never have escaped!


Can you imagine the following: A single inmate, with no heirs, on Death Row, wins the Mega Millions jackpot.  What good is it to him? Had the Jews “hit the jackpot” but died at the sea, the gift of the Egyptian riches would have been pointless.


In fact, in the first display of sarcasm in the Torah, the Israelites, pinned in at the Sea by the Egyptians, say to Moshe:

יא  …. הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין-קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר:  מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ, לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם.

11 'Weren't there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you have to bring us out here to die in the desert? How could you do such a thing to us, bringing us out of Egypt?


If I were to ask you which of the following three Hagim from the Torah is the most difficult, how would you rate them: Succot, Pesach, Shavuot?


Most people answer that the easiest Hag to observe is Shavuot. What’s involved? It’s a regular Yom Tov, but aside from staying up all night studying Torah (a custom and not an obligation per se), there are no specific mitzvot of the day!  Succot is usually rated as #2: A significant amount of preparation is necessary for the holiday, building a Succah, and carefully selecting your four species. But once the Hag arrives, all one must do is have his meals (and sleep if possible!) in this makeshift house, and shake a few branches and a citrus fruit once a day.  And you’re good to go!


Pesach, in contrast, is a very challenging holiday: Prior to Passover, we must launch a complete overhaul of our kitchen, purchase only (expensive!) Kosher for Passover products, stay up all night speaking about the Exodus (twice outside of Israel!) and consume vast quantities of somewhat tasteless wafers and Romaine Lettuce or horseradish…


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, reports on how he once asked a mixed group of observant and non-observant Jews this very question.  In a terrific article in YU’s latest “Pesach-to-Go” journal, Rav Sacks adds: “I then asked, which festivals are kept by the greatest number of Jews. Again, everyone agreed: Pesach was kept by most, Shavuot by the least, with Sukkot in between. There was a pause as the group slowly realised what it had just said. It was counterintuitive but undeniable: the harder a festival is, the more people will keep it.


Rabbi Sacks notes that the same phenomenon exists outside of the Jewish world. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely invited a group of people to make origami shapes: “Their work was then demonstrated and participants and bystanders were asked how much they would pay for them. On average, the people who made the models were willing to pay five times as much as were the bystanders.”


Reflecting on the very troubling results of last fall’s Pew Report on American Jewry, the former Chief Rabbi continues:


 “Throughout a century of reflection on how to sustain Jewish identity in an open, secular society, the case has often been made that we need to make Judaism easier. Why make the barriers so high, the demands so steep, the laws so rigorous and demanding? So, one by one, the demands were lowered. Shabbat, kashrut and conversion were all made easier. As for the laws of taharat ha-mishpacha, in many circles outside Orthodoxy they fell into abeyance altogether. The assumption was that the less demanding Judaism is to keep, the more Jews will stay Jewish.”


Of course, the fact that the more people are invested in a project, the more dedication, self-sacrifice and even love they have for the project, shows the fallacy of the assumption Rav Sacks cites above.  


In my earlier post, “The Fruit Aisle Got Me Thinking” – I discussed the threat to Torah and mitzvot posed by Biblical Criticism and the ongoing need for an articulate “renewal” of our commitment to Torah.  It is no secret that the handmaiden of reduced observance is the attack on the authority of Torah and the accompanying oral tradition, including both Torah and rabbinic law. 


This all dovetails beautifully with Daniel Gordis’ fall essay in which he bemoans the decline of the Conservative movement in the United States. In a response to the Gordis piece, Torah scholar and historian Rabbi Berel Wein writes:  


“Gordis rightly puts the blame for this failure on the spiritual leadership of the movement, which made few demands on its congregants and succumbed to every societal whim of the time. A religion, which in essence stands for nothing and allows everything, cannot in the long run remain viable and alive.


“Gordis emphasizes how the (in)famous decision of the Conservative movement in 1950 to allow its congregants to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat not only helped destroy the Shabbat but also contributed to the destruction of the movement itself. People instinctively saw through the sham and realized that if it was permissible to drive to the synagogue than it must also somehow be permissible on Shabbat to drive to the golf course.


“People have the ability to do as they please but nevertheless a religious movement must always remain an arbiter of right and wrong, of what is permissible and what should not be done. By blurring that line the Conservative movement lost its identity and its reason for existence.


“There are many Orthodox Jews who are not really halachicly observant in all forms of technical requirements. Nevertheless they realize that Orthodoxy stands for basic principles and historical beliefs that remain valid and uncompromising in its demands on its adherents. The Jew who drives his automobile to attend Shabbat services at an Orthodox synagogue is aware that he or she is not observing the Shabbat as it should be observed.


“One is entitled to behave as one wishes but the requiem for the Conservative movement was pretty much self-inflicted by its dumbing down of the core principles of Judaism and severing itself from the ideas of Jewish spirituality and historical continuity.

Now, here is where the Sephardic synagogues of Seattle can take a leadership role, by articulating the above to its membership: Sephardic Jews have generally not suffered from the same “denominationalization” (is that a word?) that has characterized the Ashkenazic Jewish community; there are obvious historical and sociological reasons for this.  Sephardic congregations such as EB and SBH seek to serve the Sephardic community as a whole


Observant Jews sit along less observant Jews in the same sanctuary and share Shabbatot and Hagim together.  This all takes place within a scrupulously-observant atmosphere where Shabbat, Kashrut and appropriate separate seating with a Mehitza are the hallmarks of the synagogue.  The synagogue as an institution is the beacon, the ideal of Jewish life.  Congregants find their place along the continuum. This is an authentic Torah position; instead of “dumbing down” our standards, we maintain them and educate others to appreciate the depth and profundity of Torah.


At the sea, the Israelites were beneficiaries of the promise made to Avraham Avinu. It was Avraham who was initially told that his nation would be enslaved, but it would leave with great riches. At the moment of truth, however, we stood in front of a closed sea, before of a G-d implored by Egypt’s ministering angel: “These (Egyptians) are idolaters, and these (Israelites) are idolaters! Why save one group over the other?”


We are the beneficiaries of deposits into our spiritual bank accounts made by earlier generations.  In the Dayenu, the message is not that it would have been enough had G-d awarded us the riches, but not split the sea.  That is of course preposterous!


Instead, the Dayenu is a narrative that traces the graduated development of the nation. The turning point, and the justification of our continued existence as a people, hinges on how we, standing alone in this generation, answer the fateful questions of our own commitment to the Torah.

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Guest Tuesday, 20 February 2018