Dayenu and the Mitzrayim of Complacency

As the Jewish world transitions to the Passover holiday, there are checklists aplenty. Of course there are the checklists of items to purchase for the family seder, as well as the list of to-do’s in order make sure that the home is chometz-free. But for professionals and volunteers in Jewish organizations there is also a rush to finish tasks and responsibilities before the Pesach vacation brings work to a halt for the holiday. It is often a time to take stock of the work that has been done and yet to be done – yes, it is a spring break, but work (and breadcrumbs) will return before too long.

Over the past few weeks as I have spoken to friends in the Jewish world I have been struck by the delicate balance of optimism and pessimism held by many professionals and volunteers. While there is a great sense of optimism that the economy and its related financial implications are on the mend, there is also a recognition (especially among social service providers) that the debilitating impact of the Great Recession is not going away anytime soon. In fact, as optimism in financial stabilization grows, there is even greater danger that too many people will forget there are too many individuals still in too much need. With respect to Jewish identity in the Diaspora, there is a balance of optimism and pessimism as well – encouraging trends of Jewish entrepreneurship and engagement give us reason to be hopeful, while the trends regarding assimilation and the cost of Jewish living give us reason for pause.

From friends in Israel I have also been hearing the same juxtaposition of optimism and pessimism. Yes, there is reason to be hopeful that as the next chapter of history in the Middle East convulses into existence it will bring new opportunities for peace and stability. But this optimism is tempered by the concern (and historical precedent) that revolutions rarely immediately transition to stable democracies that have the ability to move away from militarism. Within Israel, while there encouraging trends such as more young Israelis taking deeper interest in building a civil and strong democratic state grounded in its Jewish identity and values, there are also trends in Israeli society regarding such issues as tolerance for religious pluralism that show us how far we all still need to go.

In this environment then, as leaders of the Jewish people and with respect to our own individual efforts, how can we say dayenu?

Certainly it is appropriate at our seders when we contemplate our exodus from Egypt; but is it appropriate in our offices and our board rooms in the present day? If satisfaction and appreciation are states of mind, should we really have that mindset yet? Even more vexing, is our aspiration for satisfaction blinding us from seeing the fault lines of brokenness that we can and must address?

All of us set high standards for ourselves and our organizations, even as we recognize we need help to meet those standards, whether financial or otherwise. While we also need to make sure we find time to celebrate our successes and take stock of our achievements, we also owe it to ourselves and those we serve to not settle for merely satisfactory. We need to build upon the ideal of an exemplary society envisioned by Ahad Ha’am and shared by so many of us – an exemplary society, not a satisfactory one.

So as all of us celebrate our historical exodus, as well as our own individual exodus from whatever personal Mitzrayim that holds us back from our own promised land, it is also worth considering how we must leave behind the Mitzrayim of complacency as well. Yes, we are making a difference and helping change and repair the world for the better. But we can do more, and should do no less than what is expected of us as individuals, organizations and communities. We cannot yet say that it’s good enough to say “good enough.”

So at our seders, let us celebrate and sing dayenu with joy and meaning. Then, after we return from our holiday, lets’ get back to work so that when we say dayenu to ourselves it is not just with satisfaction, but with aspiration as well.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. He is president of Jewish Family and Career Services of Atlanta, a trustee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and a member of the board of Joshua Venture Group. Seth can be contacted directly at sethacohen [at] and on twitter at @sethacohen33.