Dayenu and Bucket Lists
by Pastor George Van Alstine

“The Bucket List” is the name of a 2007 movie starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two men who meet in a hospital where they have both been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. These unlikely companions bond over a discussion of what they will do with the remaining precious few months of their lives. They each come up with a “bucket list” — the things they’d like to do before they “kick the bucket.” They become excited enough by this notion that they set off on a round-the-world journey, trying to cover all the experiences on both of their fantasy lists. In the end, both of them discover, each in his own way, that the most important thing they can do during their remaining days is to build or rebuild their family relationships. Morgan Freeman’s character returns early from his travels because he realizes that he really loves his wife and misses her, and the Jack Nicholson character overcomes a longtime barrier between himself and his daughter and, as a bonus, gets to meet a granddaughter he hadn’t known existed.

Since the movie came out, all sorts of “bucket list” sites have sprung up on line. It seems many people identify with the sense that they’ve missed something in life and they ought to do something about it before they die.

I gave this some thought, and I was surprised to find that there is nothing on my “bucket list.” Oh, there are lots of things I haven’t done that I’m sure I would enjoy, but none of them would be necessary to complete or fulfill my life. It also occurred to me that I am rich in the kinds of things I have experienced, and I could well spend the rest of my life plumbing the depths of realities that are already very near me.

I recently heard Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as part a movie score, and I was transported to my college dorm where I first closed my eyes and listened to that awesome piece of music. I decided I’d like it played over and over when I’m on my deathbed. There are lots of people I’d probably enjoy meeting — great theologians, President Obama, Garrison Keillor — but there are many people I’ve known for years, and yet I’ve never heard the fascinating stories of their lives. Some of the people I’d like most to spend quality time with are my own wife, daughter and grandkids.

I once stumbled on a book that was a translation of a small work by Jean-Henri Fabre, a famous French naturalist and entomologist (1823-1915). This entire book was an account of observations he made during one season in his own backyard. He witnessed the various phases in the life of a moth, the adventures of a foraging ant colony, and an epic battle between a hunting wasp and a praying mantis. He never left his backyard, and yet he experienced more natural truth than many people do in a lifetime of travel and discovery. I learned from that book that I had a lot more living to do in my own backyard, before I try to seek adventure in the four corners of the world.

There is a song sung in Jewish homes as part of the celebration of Passover, the annual remembrance of God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. It is entitled “Dayenu,” which like many Hebrew words, is hard to translate into English with the same force and nuance. “Day” means “sufficiency, satisfaction,” and the rest of the word, “enu,”means “for us.” So “Dayenu” means “sufficient for us.” I think a fair translation of “Dayenu” in the chorus refrain might be “That would be enough for us.”

There are fifteen verses in the song, each one followed by the chorus, “Dayenu” (“That would have been enough”). The first stanza is “If he had brought us out of Egypt” (with the implication that the deliverance went no farther), “Dayenu.” The second stanza goes a step beyond this: “If he had executed justice to the Egyptians” (through the plagues), “Dayenu.” Each stanza goes a step forward in the exodus experience: “If he had opened the Red Sea,” “If he had led us through on dry land,” “If he had drowned our oppressors,” “If he had fed us manna in the wilderness,” right on through to the entrance into the Promised Land and the building of the Temple. Each stanza ends with “Dayenu” — If God had taken us this far and no farther, that would have been enough for us.

I like the “Dayenu” approach to life. Rather than thinking about all I’ve missed, I choose to focus on the great blessings I’ve experienced. Whatever point I’m at in the journey toward deliverance, it’s more than I deserve. Every person I’ve known, every happy memory I have, every pleasure I’ve experienced, every wonder in God’s creation I’ve discovered, they’re all gifts of his grace, and “Dayenu!”

Let someone else make bucket lists. My bucket’s full.