Parasha Ekev

This week’s parasaha, Ekev, contains the proof-text of for the Birkat Ha-Mazon, that is, the Grace after Meals.  “When you have eaten and been satisfied,” the text says, “you shall bless Adonai, your G-d for the good land which G-d has given you.”  The Torah does not tell us HOW we should bless G-d, however. It doesn’t tell us the words we should say. It was up to the rabbis of the Talmud to develop this blessing.  In doing so, they took the instruction a bit further than the literal commandment that is presented in the Torah.

They took it a bit further in that they did not only bless the LAND.  The Birkat Ha-Mazon they wrote goes beyond that.  It contains four blessings.  The first blessing thanks G-d for providing food for ALL creatures.  In fact, the word for “all” or “every” appears six times in this first blessing, and concludes by thanking G-d for sustaining “all life”.  The second blessing is narrower in scope. It thanks G-d for the Land of Israel and its bounty. It also thanks G-d for redeeming us from Egypt, for establishing a covenant with the People of Israel, and for the Torah. The third blessing is also particular to the Jewish people.  It asks G-d to have mercy on Israel and to restore the symbols of political sovereignty to the land of Israel – Jerusalem, the House of David, and the Temple.  The fourth blessing moves us back to a wider scope, as it describes G-d as the “ruler of the universe” who is a “sovereign who is good to all.”  It concludes by asking G-d to always bestow upon us grace, kindness, and compassion. In some ways, this parallels the blessings we recite morning and evening around the Shema.  These too begin with G-d as Creator of the natural world and move to G-d’s particular relationship with the Jewish people. The themes of Creation, Revelation, and Redemption are found in the Birkat HaMazon, just as they are found in our morning and evening services.  You can see that the rabbis used the occasion of people sitting down for a meal to address themes that go well beyond thanking G-d for food. In fact, the Birkat Ha-Mazon is a brief worship service in itself.   When we recite the Birkat Ha-Mazon we are reminded to be grateful to G-d for all that we have.  We are also reminded that although we have worked hard for the food that is before us, none of it would be there were it not for the goodness and beneficence of G-d, who is the ultimate provider of this food.  We are, as it were, dependent on G-d for our sustenance.  It is far better to be dependent on G-d, however, that to be dependent on our fellow human beings for our food.  The Birkat Hamazon acknowledges the shame that often comes with dependency on others when it says in the third paragraph: Please, O Lord our God, do not make us dependent on the gifts or the loans of other people, but only on your full, open, holy, and generous hand, so that we may not suffer shame or humiliation forever and ever.  The Sephardic tradition adds to this:  “For the gifts that they give are small, and the embarrassment that they cause is great.”  This is a reminder that, above all, when we give to those in need, we must do it with sensitivity to the feelings of those to whom we give.  The story is told in “The Book of the Pious” a 13th century ethical work, of Reuben, an honest man who has fallen on hard times, who asked Shimon to lend him some money. “I won’t lend you the money,” said Shimon, “I give it to you as a gift.” Shimon thought he was being magnanimous. But Reuben was so ashamed and embarrassed that he promised himself he would never ask Shimon for a loan again.  In offering to give Reuben the money instead of loaning it to him, Shimon humiliated him by making him feel like he was no longer an equal, but was part of a lower class, a beggar. The Birkat Ha-Mazon is a prayer that makes us aware of G-d’s presence in our lives and our gratefulness for G-d’s gifts. It also reminds us that it is not enough to give to those less fortunate, we must do it in a way that safeguards the dignity of those who are in need. Shabbat Shalom    

Rabbi Marc D. Rudolph
Congregation Beth Shalom
Naperville, Illinois