Just in time for Passover, here’s British author Howard Jacobson’s fascinating take on Dayenu as the ultimate sarcastic Jewish joke:
Superfluous though we insist each of God’s favors and blessings to us was, the truth is we would have been in serious trouble without any of them. For where would have been the use of His leading us to the Red Sea had He not parted it; or our wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, had He not provided us with Manna? We say the one would have sufficed without the other, but in fact it would not. Thus the song is as much a rehearsal of complaints we might have voiced and might voice yet, as it is a hymn of praise.
Built into this magnificent song of gratitude, therefore, is the fact of our colossal ingratitude. Nothing is enough for us. Not because we are vainglorious or greedy, but because our appetite for intellectual dissatisfaction, like our apprehension of disaster, knows no bounds. Call it the ravenousness of reasoning—the rabbinic “on the one hand this, on the other hand that.” Call it our love of striking bargains. Call it hyperbole. Call it what you like, it is the bedrock of Jewish comedy. As it is the bedrock of our faith.
The Jewish joke is above all a strategy for survival. It looks, of necessity, to the future. It anticipates a woe before that woe is visited upon us. It gets in first with the criticism and the cruelty. If anybody is going to knock us around it won’t be the Cossacks, it will be ourselves. So that while a Jewish joke appears to be the perfecting of self-denigration, it is actually the opposite. It is the fruit of a perpetual vigilance and in the process demonstrates an intelligence that is, because it has to be, unremitting.
If there were such a thing as a perfect Jewish joke—and who is to say that the Dayenu is not it?—it would never finish. Ours is a religion of suspense. We wait and wait, for a God who cannot show Himself and a Messiah we would rather never came. We await an end, as we await a punch line, to a narrative that has no end. And just when we thought it was all over, it begins again. What are the last words of the Dayenu? “It would have sufficed us …” But by now our ear demands another clause, another gift, another setback for God to overcome. There is no final thank-you because there is no final sufficiency.
If this whets your appetite, check out the entire piece in Tablet Magazine.