Holidays and Red Lights: On Dayenu and Social Change

This week we entered the new month of Nissan—the month of Passover. The season of the Festival of Freedom is upon us.

It is time to make our preparations for this physical and spiritual journey. We buy the matzo and special foods, we plan our Seders and special meals. And we think about the story of the Exodus, and how this ancient story of bondage and oppression and liberation continues to echo in our own day.

When we gather around the Seder table, we tell this story. The special book we use at the Seder is called the Haggadah, from the word for “telling.” But it is of course not a strict retelling, for the story is embellished, primarily with symbolic foods, but also with special songs and recitations.

One of my favorite piyyutim, or liturgical poems, from the Seder is Dayenu. The poem recounts the different miraculous steps the Israelites took in their journey to freedom, the gifts from God, with each step followed by the refrain, dayenu—It would have been enough.

If God had given us Shabbat, but not brought us to Mount Sinai, dayenu, it would have been enough.

If God had brought us to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah, dayenu, it would have been enough.

On its face, the essence of the song is the need to be thankful for each of the little steps of freedom it took for us to get to where we needed to be. But the irony of Dayenu is that while we say “it would have been enough” after each miracle, it isn’t really true. We hope for more, and the miracle of each step is not only that it is a miracle in and of itself, but it is a stage in the journey. The journey doesn’t end, we are looking for what needs to happen next.

Both are true. We offer thanks for the steps we have taken, while also looking at the larger picture of the path we must travel.

Earlier this week I had the honor of attending the bill signing for SB 5173, which creates two “holidays of faith or conscience” for public employees and students—an additional two (unpaid) days off. This bill was championed by the Muslim community initially, and it had a broad base of support across faith traditions. I testified for the bill on behalf of the Jewish community, and I stood by the Governor’s side (along with many other folks) as he signed it into law.bill signing

On one hand, it doesn’t seem like much—two days off of work with out pay. On the other hand, it is a huge step towards religious equality and diversity, the recognition that in order to have true religious liberty there sometimes needs to be accommodations made to minority faith traditions. At one point it would have been dayenu to be granted permission off work without supervisors giving a hard time. Now it is dayenu that the law of the State of Washington grants two days off.

And there is more to go to achieve religious liberty. But this is how social and legal change is made—in stages, in dayenu moments.

Currently as part of our Tikkun Olam (repair of the world) efforts at Temple Beth Hatfiloh we are focusing on hunger. We will conduct a food drive, spend a day of service at GRuB and participate in the community wide CROP Walk—all with the goal of increasing awareness around issues of hunger in our community.

We kicked off these events by watching the documentary A Place at the Table. This is very powerful film looking at poverty and food insecurity in America. It was tough to watch, especially with the growing realization that so much of the issues around hunger in our country have to do with systemic issues relating to laws and policies. Relief through food banks and feeding programs are mere band-aids. While it is extremely important to continue to provide and support these, real change must come through shifting of priorities at the highest level.

This sort of cultural and political shift is possible, but it takes time, patience and small steps. The system as it is now is based on policies developed during the Great Depression. It would take time to undo it as well. But just because it seems insurmountable, doesn’t mean we don’t make the attempt. That is the message of dayenu—we work in stages to achieve social change, thankful for the each individual achievement with an eye towards what comes next.

As a community dedicated to social justice, we need to be engaged not only applying the band-aids but working towards real social change. The vehicle for doing this in our society is through government, through laws, through legislation. I was always interested in government and politics, and while it did not end up as my vocation, I see it as an important part of my rabbinate to be engaged politically. The power of civic action as a means of Tikkun Olam became clear as I stood next to the Governor—as a rabbi—and watched him sign this bill into law. From a concern to an idea to a conversation to a bill to a law.

And if it is of concern, a change is possible.

If you haven’t been to a bill signing, it works like this. The Governor’s Office announces the slate of bills he will take action on at a particular time, and all those who are interested assemble outside the Governor’s Office in the Capitol at the appointed time. Since there are multiple bills which may be signed, the crowd can grow quite large. An aide comes out and announces the number, and those waiting for a particular bill file in.

I was early to the bill signing, and watched the hallway outside the signing grow larger. It seemed that the contingent for our bill was one of the largest assembling until we realized how many leather-clad bikers there were. I got to talking with one of them, and he told me about his bill, SB 5141, or “the left turn bill.”

As you may know, many traffic lights are not on timers, but they react to sensors in the road to indicate the presence of a car. The sensors then change the light from red to green. However, as I just learned, a motorcycle is oftentimes too light to trigger the sensor, so the traffic light does not know it is there. This results in a motorcyclist waiting at a red light for an indefinite amount of time, especially when there are no other vehicles around. The bill (now law) gives motorcyclists the right to make a left turn through a red light if the road is clear without committing a moving violation.

Who knew? I certainly didn’t. But the bikers did. And they used our existing systems of social change to bring about Tikkun Olam for their community.

We can be cynical about our system at times and we should. Money and power can shift the system away from the common good. But sometimes too an idea becomes an effort, and through sharing the idea, and compromise and negotiations and conversations, an idea becomes enshrined in law. An active citizenry has that power.

The Exodus from Egypt that we retell at Passover is the story of an engaged, active citizenry that was able to transform their circumstance. We are grateful for each step, and we look to the next thing we can achieve. This is our legacy. This is our mandate.

If religiously diverse citizens have the ability to take time off to worship and celebrate, dayenu.

If motorcycles can run red lights when the coast is clear, dayenu.

So now, what’s next?

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