This week’s Torah portion continues Moses’ diatribe to the Jewish people. He rebukes them for the golden calf, he brings up the Meraglim (spies) again, he gives over the blessings which become the 2nd paragraph of Shema, but then he braces them for entering the land of Israel. And when he does that he imparts to them a special mitzvah.
For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains, a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper. And you will eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless the Lord, your God, for the good land He has given you. (Devarim 8: 7-10)
It’s from this passage we get the Torah commandment of Birkas HaMazon, aka grace after the meal, aka benching. Now blessing our food sounds like a logical thing. You have food, it’s not a bad idea to be thankful for it. The Christians have this down pretty well.
But where Christians say grace before the meal, we say it after the meal. Yes, we do say bruchas before eating, but those were added later by the rabbis. The Torah commandment specifically says to do the mitzvah once you’re satisfied. Then on top of thanking God for the meal, we do another brucha and thank God for the land of Israel. Then on top of that we do another brucha for Jerusalem. Then another! It’s almost like you’re doing a whole Shemoneh Esrei. If fact, I know plenty of people who avoid eating bread just to skip the whole thing (for non bread meals, benching is much shorter). So what’s this all about and why does Moses give them the commandment here?
Man Can’t Live on Bread Alone
As I said above, we make this long brucha only after we’ve eaten bread. The Hebrew word for bread is לחם. Connected to the root of this word is מלחמה, war. The idea is that food has always been something we’ve had to fight for. Then God comes along and starts giving the Jews bread (the Manna) from heaven. For the first time in human history, man doesn’t have to toil for his food. But now, after 40 years that reality is ending as the Jews are entering Israel and are going to have to work again. It’s a scary thought especially considering this generation was born in the desert, they’ve never worked a day in their life. So Moses gives them this special brucha that contains an exceptional power.
Aside from just expressions of gratitude, Birkas HaMazon contains blessing for the land, parnassa (livelihood), and even circumcision. What Moses is telling them is that if they recognize Hashem as the source of their food, and they don’t forget their connection (bris milah), God is always going take care of them just as he did in the desert. Not just with food, but for all their needs. And many prominent Rabbi regard Birkas HaMazon as the source for all blessings. It’s pretty powerful.
First is the Worst, Second is the Best
As I mentioned above, the Torah commandment is to say Birkas HaMazon after you’ve finished eating. Why? Wouldn’t you think when you’re hungry and in desperate need is when you have the best kavana (intention)? And that makes sense, but I’ll just mention something I saw a couple weeks ago.
I was coming out of Machon Shlomo, the Yeshiva I happen to be studying at, when I was going for a run. Now Machon Shlomo isn’t on some huge illustrious campus. It’s actually located in an apartment complex, meaning there are families living in units all around us. As I’m exiting, a kid, maybe 12 years old is eating a popsicle, is just in front of me. As I’m about to pass him, without even finishing half the popsicle he throws it (stick, wrapper, and popsicle) off the walkway and down into a neighbor’s first floor balcony. I was appalled. How could this kid, living in the land of Israel where our ancestors for generations prayed to return to, literally trash the place? It’s probably a good thing that there is a language barrier because I was about to give some serious rebuke.
But the reality is that we do things like this all the time. After we’ve gotten what we want, we completely forget the need and yearning we had at the beginning. We just went through a fast day on Tisha B’av and I had such an appreciation for water… until 10 minutes after I drank it. Then I was back to normal. So God comes along and commands us to give thanks after we’re satisfied. It’s a tremendous tool for developing our appreciation long after our physical needs are met.
There is plenty more to say about each of the successive bruchas which make up Birkas HaMazon but I’ll keep that for another post. For now I’ll just leave you with the idea that not only does benching develop and cultivate gratitude (in a world where getting our sustenance is as easy pulling up Seamless or Grubhub) but that there is a Kabbalistic idea that making a blessing brings God’s presence more fully into the world. And the most opportune time for that is in times of joy and gratitude. So enjoy your food and give thanks! It’ll make the next meal all that much better.