Q. Isn’t Dayyenu rather childish?
A. At first glance, yes. The melodies (none very old) are rollicking. We fall over ourselves with the speed at which we try to get our tongues round the words. Each line rises to a noisy crescendo. The excitement is palpable.
But this is part of the skill of the unknown author (he could have lived at the time of the Second Temple, though the song in its present form is first found in the early Middle Ages).
The form of the poem is a litany like Al Chet and Avinu Malkenu. The 15 lines list 15 boons which God bestowed on us. The number may reflect the 15 steps leading up to the main hall of the Temple, the 15 Psalms of Ascents, or the 15 stages that lead the righteous to perfection.
There is a serious problem in the song, however. As normally translated, it says that if, for instance, God had merely brought us out of Egypt and done nothing else, it would have been sufficient. The thought is almost preposterous. Would we really have been satisfied without Mount Sinai, the Torah, Jerusalem and the Temple? This cannot be the poet’s message. Two answers might be suggested:
1. We must be thankful even for small mercies. We have no right to expect ongoing miracles. Had God only redeemed us from Egypt, was that not already something wondrous?
2. Dayyenu is not an exclamation but a question. Had God given us merely one boon, would that have been sufficient? In our own lives, have we a right to celebrate if we climb a first mountain? Are there not always further mountains to climb?
But what about the last verse? When God gave us a Temple, surely that was sufficient!
The answer must be that even with a Temple (and we daily pray for its rebuilding), there is still a mountain to climb – the task of seeing the whole world come to Jerusalem to acknowledge God and call upon His Name.