Friday, April 3, 2009

Living Day to Day, from Di to Dayenu (A Passover Strategy for Hope)

The whimsical portrait above, sent to me by my sister Lisa, pretty much encapsulates how all of us are getting by these days. With unemployment at the highest levels in a generation, with life savings depleted and with competition keener than ever for every break, the rat race seems to have left us gasping in the midst of a raging Red Sea.

Vin Scully, the great broadcaster, once said of a baseball player on the injured list, "He's listed as day to day....but aren't we all." That's how we're feeling these days, as we are swept away by the tides of chance. God seems to be playing games with us... this week, on the very day that I buried an elderly woman whose Hebrew name was Chana, I performed a baby naming for little girl, whose name became, you guessed it, Chana.

The Hebrew word "Dayenu" means "It would have been enough," and we consider it an exclamation of cup-runneth-over satisfaction. We'd have been completely satisfied with the Exodus, but no, God also gave us the Torah...and the land of Israel...and...and the iPod too! What more could we ask for!

But before we say "Dayenu," we always say "Dai" "Dai," which in Hebrew conveys precisely the opposite meaning. It means, "Enough, already! Get off my back! I can't take it anymore!" In Israel you'll hear "Dai" much more often than "Dayenu," on just about every bus, or any time anyone turns on the news.

What makes the song such a puzzlement is that it only takes a fraction of a breath for a person to make the long, difficult journey from "Dai" to "Dayenu." It doesn't have to take years of therapy or even a cold slap in the face. Simply by moving forward one syllable, you can make the journey from being a hopeless cynic, distraught by the world's endless frustrations, to being eternally grateful for every little speck of goodness that happens to us.

It's at that moment that we realize just how dependent we are on the whims of chance, and how that mere fact places us all on the same boat.

When applying for jobs these days, there is no reason to respond to that typical interview question, "Why did you leave your last job?" The question is not even asked anymore. It's no longer a matter of ability or even seniority. It's all a matter of chance. Everyone knows why you left...and you had nothing to do with it.

This week my son Ethan fortunate enough to get into Brown, his first-choice college. We're extremely proud of him, and he is incredibly deserving, but so were most of the 23,000, or roughly 90 percent, who were rejected from that school. I'm very proud of all our Beth El seniors, all of whom are richly deserving, and I have confidence that all will succeed on the next level.

This entire process of college application has been gut wrenching; now that I've seen it up-close, I can see just how much of it is left to chance. Good grades help, when accompanied by a passion for service and leadership. Talent often wins out. But even more often, it doesn't. Being a third generation legacy student undoubtedly played a part for Ethan, but a huge majority of legacy applicants were rejected too.

In the end, it's as if some celestial dean of students throws the souls of our kids up high in the air, sees where they happen to land and says, "That's where you're going to school." My only hope, as a parent and rabbi, is that those souls don't shatter on impact.

That's why we have to see it all, shake our heads, and simply say, "Dayenu." We're all on that same path crossing the Red Sea. Some are on the bus, some on a bike, some at Harvard and some at the school of hard knocks. Some are unemployed this week, a few hundred thousand more will be next week. It's enough to make us all want to throw up our hands and yell "Dai!!!!"

But instead, we'll knock back four cups and sing "Dayenu."

...And be glad to be alive, be sitting with family around the table...

... Happy Passover - and while I'm at it, happy birthday to my son Dan, who turns 16 on Monday!

Did someone say "Learners Permit?"

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