Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Essential vs. Non-Essential: Dayeinu During the Pandemic Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Now is the crucial time to focus on what we have.
Most people around the world are under home lockdown, following “Stay Home, Stay Safe” emergency orders to combat the coronavirus. Individuals are allowed to leave their homes for certain “essential activities,” which includes grocery shopping, medical needs, going to the gas station or bank. In Boca Raton where I live, the order emphasizes that only “essential retail and commercial activities” are permitted and only “essential” business can stay open.
The dictionary definition of “essential” is “absolutely necessary; extremely important.” Synonyms are “crucial, necessary, key, and vital.” Non-essential means “not completely necessary.” Synonyms include “dispensable, gratuitous, inessential, needless, and unnecessary.”
Reading the recent order got me thinking about what we consider essential. Each of us is the executive of our own lives; we give the orders and we define what is essential, crucial, and vital versus what is non-essential, what is dispensable and gratuitous, and what we can live without.
Obviously, none of us can live without our health or without the well-being of our loved ones. For those who are suffering or have experienced a loss, there are no words or platitudes, only our heartfelt empathy and love. And to those financially devastated by this pandemic, in addition to our commitment to help, provide and support, know that we care deeply and we are thinking about you.
For those fortunate to have their health and financial stability, the consequences and impact of this pandemic are still extremely challenging. So many aspects of this new normal can’t help but frustrate, disappoint, aggravate and worry even the most even-tempered, confident, competent, and capable person.
Even if we are blessed not to be grieving loved ones, we are all grieving the loss of innocence, of certain assumptions and realities we took for granted and came to expect. Honor that feeling, lean into that pain, express that frustration in a healthy way, and then let it go and work to feel a sense of dayeinu.
Dayeinu’s message is straightforward – we need to know how to say “enough,” not in a caustic tone, but in an appreciative one. On this evening of the journey from slavery to liberty, we achieve our very freedom. By saying dayeinu, we focus on what we have, not what we don’t: we have enough, we are satisfied enough.
Dayeinu means it is enough to enjoy this moment, to be present in this experience, to savour this gift and to cherish this opportunity without having to already look forward or crave the next one. Of course, each stage and each stanza of this song is incomplete, each is imperfect, but nevertheless, dayeinu; each is still enough. Enough to prompt us to say thank you and even enough to make us happy.
Like the stanzas of Dayeinu, our lives are often incomplete, they are imperfect. For most of us, this Passover is different from all others. There is so much missing, so many people absent from our table or people feeling our absence from theirs. Yet, if we focus on what is missing, what we don’t yet have or may never have, we become debilitated, deprived of happiness. On the other hand, if we find the capacity to sing Dayeinu, to focus on what is, to enjoy what we have, we set ourselves free to find happiness.
This pandemic has forced us to redefine “essential” and “non-essential.”
Our Sages teach that he who has one hundred desires two hundred. An insatiable appetite for more, a voracious need for the latest, being unsatisfied without the newest, the best, the most, robs us of serenity, denies us happiness, and often distracts us from what matters the most.
We live with unprecedented freedoms: freedom to practice our religion, freedom of speech, freedom to pursue happiness. And yet, with all those freedoms, our generation remains enslaved. We are slaves to needing “more.” We are dominated by needs. Our need for more money, more time, more things, the latest things, a better seat, a better room, more power, more friends, the need to have the last word, even our need to be needed.
Our needs, wants, and lack of contentment become our taskmasters. They occupy space in our head and in our hearts, they hijack our thoughts, they dictate to us how to feel and they command us to say things and do things that are self-destructive.
This pandemic has forced us to redefine “essential” and “non-essential.” With the proper frame of mind, many of us can be empowered in unprecedented ways to sincerely and genuinely sing Dayeinu from the essence of our being.
If my children have dedicated teachers and inspired Torah to learn, even if they are missing their campus and its amenities, dayeinu.
If we have each other, feel connected and part of a community working together, even if we cannot get our haircuts, manicures or upgrade our wardrobes, dayeinu.
If we have simchas to celebrate, babies born and couples entering a sacred bond, even if they cannot be marked with the usual pomp and circumstance, dayeinu.
If we can observe Passover, the holiday of Emunah, Faith, remembering that God runs the world and brings redemption, even if it isn’t at a hotel or where we normally go or with the people we are normally with, dayeinu.
Above all, if we can breathe easily, if we and those we love have our health, even if we can’t enjoy our full lifestyles, dayeinu.
On Passover we set ourselves free by singing Dayeinu. We are happy to pause to reflect on what we have and say thank you. Living with limits, finding happiness within what we have, maintaining the capacity to say “enough” is liberating, empowering, and enriching. When we always want more, we never pause to enjoy what we have, and we forfeit what is in the pursuit of what is next.
During this Passover, take a few moments to reflect. Look around your table, take stock of your life and don’t notice what is missing, what you wish was there. Instead, sing Dayeinu, “enough”, and hold tighter onto that which is there. This is a critical theme of Passover. It’s the key to setting yourself free.