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One Cent More: Dayenu and Dignity in the Tomato Fields

A few days ago, at their annual spring rally and concert, some tomato pickers from Florida taught me what Dayenu is about. I never expected this to happen because I never suspected I had been misunderstanding it at all. But this past Shabbat, in St. Petersburg, Florida, I marched with activists and workers and then attended the Concert for Fair Food, along with my colleagues from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. There, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), who almost entirely speak Spanish, taught me new meaning to the Hebrew word “enough.”

I have been misunderstanding the Dayenu prayer my entire life, believing it is meant humorously. I always thought it was obsequious hyperbole—saying “it would have been enough” to mean that of course we would still love God after minor miracles, but actually winking and nodding at the fact that we actually needed all of the miracles in order to get to freedom and to this seder table right now. It took spending time around people who have been living essentially in modern-day slavery in order to reinterpret the idea of celebrating the smallest victories for the blessings they truly are.

Though a story of blessings, this is not redemption by the mighty hand of God. Rather, the CIW has used community organizing to fight their way from slavery conditions toward a life where, as one speaker on Saturday put it, “We do not have to leave our dignity when we go to the fields.” They have done this largely by pressuring large U.S. supermarket chains and fast food restaurants to agree to only buy tomatoes from growers who have signed the Fair Food Agreement, which ensures basic labor protections (such as the right of workers to report abuses without fearing retribution) and that the pickers are paid one penny more per pound of tomatoes.

On Saturday, speaker after speaker took the stage to speak (simultaneously translated from Spanish to English) of thanks for the right to finally report sexual harassment and work hours where they could see their children off to school. It struck me, listening to them bilingually celebrate, how much is added for us—dayenu—by the smallest things that allow us to consistently live with dignity. And then, they pressed for more, calling on the holdout companies to sign the agreement, chanting “One cent more!”

What is smaller in our economy than one cent? What is easier to ignore by those of us who have already been delivered from the metaphorical Egypt? And yet, one penny more per pound would truly be a marker of enough for the CIW. The scale of these workers asking for one cent more seems absurd until I remember that we are dealing with Pharaohs. If the Pharaohs are still counting pennies, then Dayenu is more relevant than I could have ever imagined. Passover is about reflecting on history so that in our world we are better at listening to those articulating true expressions of what they need for “enough” dignity, and to join them in amplifying their voices, whether it is Mexican Spanish or Biblical Hebrew, and whether in ancient Egypt or present-day Florida. When we listen to them, we learn entirely new meanings to words we thought we understood. 

The Reconstructionist Network

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