What If: Alternate History and Dayenu
What if? This is a question which can spark the imagination. By imagining what might have been, we can better appreciate what is, both in general and in Judaism.
ALTERNATE UNIVERSES (FICTIONAL)
Fanfiction, the genre of stories written about favorite fictional characters, is sometimes set in an AU – alternate universe. For example, what if Harry Potter had been raised by rationalists? Sometimes the copyright owners get in on the act as well, publishing “what if” variations on Disney films, Star Wars films, and Marvel and DC superhero origin stories. For example, what if Superman’s space capsule had landed in Soviet Russia?
ALTERNATE HISTORY (GENERAL)
The “what if” question has spawned counterfactual history (a type of historiography) and alternate history (a type of historical fiction). Uchronia.net features an annotated list of 3400 novels, stories, and essays exploring the “what ifs” of history. What if the Nazis had won World War II? What if England had suppressed the American Revolution? In alternate history, everything may be reimagined. What if Ada Baron Lovelace and Mary Godwin Shelley had been born at the same time?
ALTERNATE HISTORY (JEWISH)
Israeli history is examined as well. What if Menachem Begin had become Prime Minister in 1948? What if Israel had annexed Judea, Samaria, and Gaza in 1967, granting citizenship to the Arabs? Interestingly, the spread of the Zionist dream in the early 1900s was partly due to a utopian novel, Old New Land, in which Theodor Herzl dared to ask: What if there were a Jewish state in the Land of Israel?
Novelist Michael Chabon, after publishing a novel of Jewish alternative history, was asked why Jews are often fascinated by “what if” stories. He answered:
Judaism is all about history.… And yet at the same time Judaism … is very focused on the future, on the coming of the Messiah…. [That] simultaneous sense of looking backward and looking forward … lend[s] itself to the … speculative, hypothetical thinking of the counterfactual novel.
We can also answer that the rabbis themselves dabbled in alternate history:
ALTERNATE HISTORY (RABBINIC)
Chazal start several statements with “ilu” (if only) or “ilmale” (if not for). For example: Had Moshe not come first, Ezra would have been worthy of having the Torah given through him. Had Chizkiyahu sung thanks to God on defeating Sancheriv, he would have become Mashiach. Had the Jews returned en masse from Babylonia to Israel, the Second Temple would not have been destroyed. If only the Jews would properly keep just one Shabbat, Mashiach would instantly arrive!
Rabbinic “what ifs” are educational. When we imagine what might have been if Chizkiyahu had thanked God, we remind ourselves not to miss our own opportunities to thank God. When we imagine Mashiach arriving because of mass Shabbat observance, we remember that the power of Shabbat is not only restorative but redemptive as well.
ALTERNATE HISTORY (HAGGADIC)
Not surprisingly, the Haggadah, which is full of educational and experiential opportunities, includes alternate histories. Near the beginning of Maggid, we proclaim, “Had God not taken us out of Egypt, then we, our children, and grandchildren would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” In other words: What if the Exodus had never happened? This alternate history seems to say that we would have remained slaves for thousands of years! (Interestingly, famous sci-fi author Robert Silverberg wrote a short story which posits exactly that.)
Later, at the end of Maggid, we list fifteen benevolent acts that God performed for us (“Kamah ma’alot tovot…”). Right before that, we present the same list in the Dayenu song: “What if God had taken us out of Egypt, but not punished the Egyptians? Dayenu – it would have been enough….” Why do we need both lists? Perhaps the answer is that the Dayenu song is filled with alternate histories of Yetziat Mitzrayim (formulated as “if onlys”).
Imagine, for example, what would have happened if God had punished the Egyptians, but not attacked their gods. Dayenu – that would have been enough for us to need to thank God – but it would have been awful! Now we can really appreciate that God did both benevolent acts for us. It is by imagining inferior alternate histories – what didn’t happen – that we can be properly grateful to God for the one true, wonderful story of Yetziat Mitzrayim – what did happen. This is a great example of using alternate history for spiritual purposes.
What if? This is a question which can elevate the soul.