A few months ago, when we celebrated the beginning of 2017, I happened to read an article listing someone’s suggestions for New Year resolutions. They included the usual things, like gaining control over finances, exercising more, eating a healthier diet, being outdoors more and doing more of what you’re passionate about. One suggestion stuck with me, in part because I had already gone a long way toward fulfilling it—possess what you actually need rather than collect and store things that you don’t really need or use. In the fall of last year, Amy and I decided to sell our home and move to an apartment. With only one child still living at home, we felt that our house had become too big for us. We had things stored in the basement, in the attic and in the garage that we simply didn’t need and never used. When we moved to our new home (at The Avenue in South Orange), we donated furniture and kitchen appliances, including things we hadn’t used in years. In our new apartment, we have exactly what we need and use.
We live in a country where some Americans have an abundance of material goods and almost unlimited access to what we want. It’s not even necessary to be mega wealthy to have so much. We need to be reminded that there are millions of people in this country, and billions more elsewhere in the world, who either barely have what they need or have much less than they need to survive. Recently, Ruth Messinger, Global Ambassador of the American Jewish World Service and Finkelstein Institute Social Justice Fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote in The Forward about the need for each of us to conduct a “self-audit for sufficiency.” She noted the following facts:
- Rabbis who travel with her to the developing world report that one of their worst moments upon returning home is entering an American supermarket that sells more than 50 kinds of cereal.
- Although the United States has 4.5% of the world’s population, we use on average 20% of the world’s energy.
- Americans throw out 200,000 tons of edible food daily, while 16 million people in Africa are on the brink of death by starvation in the next few months.
- The richest eight people in the world have assets equal to those of the poorest 3.6 billion people in the world (half the world’s population).
Messinger notes that people often speak of what they need when what they’re really referring to is what they want, and that we should strive to distinguish between needs and wants in our thinking, our possessions and our consumption. She suggests that we should ask ourselves if we really “need” the item we are about to acquire, and if we are truly helping our children by giving them what they say they need.
Passover is an opportunity to focus on what we possess versus what we actually need. In general, Pesach summons us to think about the burdens and suffering of those who are enslaved, oppressed and impoverished. I often think of something my father used to say: “I felt sorry for myself that I had no shoes until I met the man who had no feet.” His point seemed to be that there’s always someone who has less than you do, and it’s always possible to make do with less than you have. Pesach reminds of this truth.
The Seder song Dayyenu is another reminder that we can get by with less than we possess or think we need. Dayyenu was probably written about 1,000 years ago and was included in the Haggadah of Rav Amram Gaon, the first sage in Jewish history to produce a formal prayer book. It has a catchy melody to go along with a precise literary structure. Containing 15 verses, each one denoting a gift from God, the lyrics represent a step-by-step accounting of the creation of the Jewish nation from the Exodus to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. The verses are considered “ma’a lot tovot” (steps of kindness) where each step is greater than the one before it. (The Rabbinical Assembly Haggadah eliminates four of the 15 verses, three of which deal with the defeat of the Egyptians, something we are not supposed to emphasize, and one of which seems to be repetitive. And The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices by Moshe Saks Zion offers a contemporary version of Dayyenu with the theme of the establishment of the modern State of Israel.)
Dayyenu, in addition to expressing gratitude to God for the gifts we have received, carries the message that any one of the steps would have been sufficient for us (indeed, that’s exactly what the word “Dayyenu” means). It expresses the idea that we should be satisfied with what we have and ought to feel extraordinarily blessed to have more than that.
What a remarkable and important idea to ponder in this age of abundance—acquire and possess only what you need. This is not meant to be an urging of asceticism or an embrace of poverty. Jews are not expected to shun material possessions. But we can say Dayyenu! It’s enough to be alive, to breathe, to live each day in this remarkable world, to give and receive love. A “Dayyenu attitude” serves to increase our appreciation of the gifts and blessings we receive each day. It prompts us to appreciate what we do have, to be more generous, more compassionate, more sensitive and understanding of those who have less than they need for a dignified, healthy life.
Isn’t that a good reason to celebrate Passover?