Rationalist Seder: Dayenu, Lo Dayenu

by Raemon 2y4th Jun 20173 min read2 comments

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There's one more piece of the NYC Rationalist Seder Haggadah that I wanted to pull out, to refer to in isolation. I think is quite relevant to some current concerns in the evolving Rationality Community, and which is interesting in particular because of how it's evolved over the past 6 years.

"Dayenu" is a traditional Jewish song, roughly a thousand years old. It describes a number of gifts that God gave the Jewish people. For each gift/verse, lyrics culminate with "Dayenu", or "it would have been enough." 

At the first rationalist Seder, Zvi made two, ahem, rather significant changes to the song. 

The first dealt with the fact that, well, we're basically a bunch of atheists, and even if we weren't, God slaying a bunch of firstborn children just isn't the sort of thing we're super in favor of these days.

The second change dealt with that that... obviously each individual miracle *wouldn't* have been enough to free the Jewish people. Freeing them from Egypt but not parting the Red Sea to let escape when Pharoah has second thoughts would very much *not* have been sufficient.

And beyond that, Less Wrong culture is emphatically based around the status quo not being satisfactory. To constantly aspire to something better.

Zvi's new version of the song told the story of human history, and it did so from the framing of "Lo Dayenu" - not enough. If we had discovered fire, but not developed agriculture, our journey would not have been finished.

But, in the spirit of cultural pendulums that swim back and forth to overcompensate for previous failures, a years later Daniel Speyer took a second pass at revising the song:

Traditionally, we sing “Dayenu”: it would have been enough.

Our sages asked: what do we mean by this?  In some of the traditional pairings, one step without the next would have left us all dead!  How can that be enough?  And it was answered: celebrate each step toward freedom as if it were enough, then start out on the next step. If we reject each step because it is not the whole liberation, we will never achieve the whole liberation.

And yet, if we celebrate our past victories and become complacent, so too will we never achieve the whole liberation.  And so we have come to sing “Lo Dayenu”: it would not have been enough.

And it has almost been said, “Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment.  Let one be, ‘we have achieved great things’ and the other be ‘we have a terribly long way yet to go’.”

Determining which moment needs which truth is left as an exercise for the reader.

Lately I've been thinking about the tension between trying to hold the community to a higher standard, without making people feel judged, or not good enough. And relatedly, how to set standards for a given space that is communicated and enforced fairly, but acknowledges that different people are at different points on their own journey. Holding both truths in your head at the same time feels pertinent.

I'll delve more into that in a future blogpost. Meanwhile, here's the current text of the song as sung by the NYC community, which alternates between the two concepts.

[Notes: A) This is the sort of song designed to be sung by people who've had 3 glasses of wine. B) "Dayenu" and "Lo Dayenu" end up getting stressed fairly differently to make them scan. The former is "Daaa-yeee-nuu", the latter is "Looo Daaa yenu."]


Dayenu / Lo Dayenu

Had we crawled forth from the ocean,
but not learned to speak with language,
but not learned to speak with language, Lo Dayenu!

Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Dayenu, dayenu,  dayenu
  Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Dayenu,  Da-ye-nu

Had we learned to speak with language,
but not mastered wheat and olives,
but not mastered wheat and olives, Dayenu!

Had we mastered wheat and olives,
but not raised ourselves stone cities,
but not raised ourselves stone cities, Lo Dayenu!

Had we raised ourselves stone cities,
but not written tomes of wisdom,
but not written tomes of wisdom, Dayenu!

Had we written tomes of wisdom,
but not severed law from vengeance,
but not severed law from vengeance, Lo Dayenu!

Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Dayenu, dayenu,  dayenu
Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Dayenu,  Da-ye-nu

Had we severed law from vengeance,
but not learned to bake and slice bread,
but not learned to bake and slice bread, Dayenu!

Had we learned to bake and slice bread,
but not mapped out all Earth's surface,
but not mapped out all Earth's surface, Lo Dayenu!

Had we mapped out all Earth's surface,
but not crafted printing presses,
but not crafted printing presses, Dayenu!

Had we crafted printing presses,
but not named the rights of humans,
but not named the rights of humans, Lo Dayenu!

Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Dayenu, dayenu,  dayenu
Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Dayenu,  Da-ye-nu

Had we named the rights of humans,
but not thought of mass production,
but not thought of mass production, Dayenu!

Had we thought of mass production,
but not tamed and harnessed lightning,
but not tamed and harnessed lightning, Lo Dayenu!

Had we tamed and harnessed lightning,
but not taught it math and logic,
but not taught it math and logic, Dayenu!

Had we taught light math and logic,
but not banished death forever,
but not banished death forever, Lo Dayenu!

Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Dayenu, Dayenu, Dayenu
  Lo dayenu. Lo dayenu. Lo da-ye-nu. da-ye-nuuuuuuuuuuuuu!

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