Emanuel Synagogue

Too often, we do not take the time to appreciate or give thanks for what we have, ignoring our responsibility to acknowledge that we are part of a bigger picture, and we are more than just fortunate to have what we have, we tend to take all of this for granted. This week’s parasha includes the commandment to give thanks for the food we enjoy, which our sages taught became the basis for Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals); “V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta et Adonai Elohecha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lach” – when you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai, your God, for the good of the land which God has given you (Devarim 8:10). 

While the main foundation for the rather involved Birkat Hamazon lies in the verse quoted above, we learn that it is actually made up of four different blessings. Perhaps even more surprising is that three of the blessings are not food-based. The four blessings are; a blessing for God Who sustains the world with food and nourishment, a blessing for the land of Israel, a blessing/request for the protection and renewal of Jerusalem, and a universal praise of God.

So, why all these blessings? And why do we recite the Hamotzi blessing (over bread) before we eat and the Birkat Hamazon after we eat? Most other times, we recite blessings before or at the time of the event, not afterwards.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) teaches that the Birkat Hamazon is actually a response to arrogance and pompousness, reminding us that earlier in this week’s parasha, Moses warns against eating the produce of the land and enjoying the earth’s abundance without recognition of where it is that we get our riches, imploring us to remember our history. In a land as good and abundant as the one described in the Torah, it is too easy to enjoy the wealth and opulence, and to forget the source of our blessings.

In that light, the intent of the Birkat Hamazon is to act as a shield to help avoid the lonely emptiness that results from self-gratification and arrogance, and to ensure that we act with humility.

It is a reminder that, in case we forgot, the food that we are so lucky to be able to enjoy, did not just appear out of nowhere, and that there are many factors involved with growing, sourcing, and preparing that food. Moreover, it is a reminder that there are many people who are not as fortunate as we are, who struggle each and every day to get enough food just to survive. Acknowledging their difficulties when we have so much helps us to realise that we also need to show humility, especially during fortunate times.

Reciting Birkat Hamazon, after we have finished enjoying our meal, and doing so with appropriate intentions, allows us to properly express our gratitude and fortune, acknowledging the many aspects that resulted in the food on our plate, and how blessed we are to enjoy that food, especially when so many others are not that lucky.

Shabbat Shalom.