Dayenu and the Holiday of Shavuot

"Shavuot," by Ishai Parasol, via under Creative Commons license
"Shavuot," by Ishai Parasol, via under Creative Commons license

The holiday of Shavuot will be observed June 5th and 6th. It is the time when the Jewish community recalls the experience at Mt. Sinai, described so dramatically in the Bible, when God gave to the People of Israel, and to the generations that would follow, the Torah through the Ten Commandments, and the people, standing at the foot of the mountain, accepted it. In addition to enjoying dairy food on this holiday, such a blintzes, each of us is called upon to confirm and to re-affirm our acceptance of the Torah in our lives as it shapes each of us religiously, spiritually, morally, and ethically.

I recently heard a rabbinic colleague of mine, Rabbi Raphael Adler of  Temple Anshei Shalom, Delray Beach, Florida, offer an additional insight to the Shavuot observance, as he referred to one of the verses in the well-known song from our Pesach Seder ritual, Dayenu.

Preceding the next-to-last verse of Dayenu which states that receiving the Law at Mt. Sinai would have been Dayenu, enough, for us, Rabbi Adler focused on the verse before that one. The verse reads:

“If God had brought us near to Mount Sinai, and not given us the Law, it would have been sufficient” (Maxwell House Haggadah)

The question has been raised by rabbinic commentators to this stanza of the song as to how it would been Dayenu for the Israelites to have approached Mt. Sinai but not have received the Law? After all, would this not be like taking one’s family to a movie, buying the tickets, standing outside the theater, and never seeing the movie? Would your family be happy and say that was good enough, Dayenu? I doubt it and I would believe you would agree.

What then is the meaning of this verse? How would it have been enough just to be there at Mt. Sinai?

One answer could be that just to have stood at the foot of the mountain and witnessed the incredible divine display at the top of the mountain would have been enough. After all, seeing this, the Israelites did not even want to approach the mountain, as it states in Exodus 20:15, “And all the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the voice of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off.” (JPS, The Holy Scriptures)

Another answer is, I believe, the more instructive one. It is based on a Midrash in which a group of rabbis questioned what was actually given by God at the top of Mt. Sinai to Moses and thereby the People of Israel. During their discussion of this question, one rabbi suggested God only gave the first five of the Ten Commandments, as these were the more spiritual ones, while the second five were the moral ones. Once you have a belief in God, he suggested, you must be moral. The final word to this discussion was offered by one of the rabbis who said that God only spoke the first letter of the first word of the first commandment which was an Aleph. With this, the rabbis were silent, and the discussion ended.

The Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and has no sound at all. This rabbi’s suggestion was the idea that God did not need to say anything at all but only needed to demonstrate the Divine presence. Once this was witnessed and affirmed by the People of Israel, a dedication and devotion to a Torah life and the commandments would then follow. This would have been Dayenu.

The lesson for the observance of Shavuot is clear. Whether or not you go to synagogue next Sunday and Monday to celebrate the holiday with a community, spend some time reflecting on God’s presence in your life and how it shapes and directs your moral, ethical, religious, and spiritual behavior. Open the doors that lie within your mind, heart, and soul welcoming in the Divine presence. By this act, you will be affirming your commitment to a Torah life. You will be awakening that part of your soul that stood there over 3,000 years ago at Mt. Sinai and joining that ancient Jewish chorus of voices that shouted out:  “na’aseh v’nishma” (Ex. 24:7), “We will carry out what we have heard”.

Then the rest will be Dayenu… the rest will be your life!

Happy Shavuot 5782.

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