Readings for a deeper dive into Deuteronomy verse

RABBI LANE STEINGER

Whenever I start to study this week’s Torah Portion, Eikev, Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25, I am drawn to one particular verse. It is Deuteronomy 8:10, the context of which refers to the bounty of the Promised Land and the food it will provide. The verse states: “V’akhalta v’savata uveyrakhta… — When you have eaten and are satisfied, bless {the Eternal your God for the good land God has given you}.” Jewish tradition takes this verse as the biblical basis for Birkat Ha-mazon, literally “the Blessing of the Food,” interpreted to mean the “Grace after the Meal.” Here are four selected Jewish thoughts directly or indirectly connected to Deuteronomy 8:10. Please consider these texts — perhaps even use them for your personal Shabbat study.

From the Babylonian Talmud (BT), Tractate Berakhot:

Our Rabbis taught: Where is Birkat Ha-mazon, the Grace after the Meal, found in the Torah? As is stated, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, bless.” (Deuteronomy 8:10)

[This rabbinic teaching is immediately preceded by an outline of the basic “order of the Grace after the Meal.” Traditional Jewish practice is to offer a brief Blessing of Enjoyment, e.g., Ha-motzi, before the meal and to say or sing grace following the meal.]

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From the BT, Tractate Sotah

“There he [Abraham] called on the name of the Eternal.” (Genesis 21:33) Resh Lakish said, “Do not read ‘he called on,’ but ‘he caused to call on,’ teaching that our Patriarch Abraham caused the Name of the Holy Source of Blessing to be called on by every passer-by. How so? After they had eaten and had drunk, they stood up to thank Abraham. He said to them, ‘Did you eat what is mine? You ate what is the Universal God’s. Thank, praise and bless the One who spoke and the world came to be.’”

[This midrash attributes the concept of the Grace after the Meal to Abraham. What does this linkage suggest to you about the Birkat Ha-mazon?]

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Light.

From A Guide To Jewish Practice: Volume 1 – Everyday Living (edited by David A. Teutsch, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Press; my insertions):

Cultivating the attitude of gratitude can be life changing. It helps us to appreciate things that we might otherwise take for granted and makes us aware of the many gifts in our lives. Reciting blessings is a powerful tool in cultivating gratitude, which may be why the Talmud (Menachot 43b) urges each person to recite at least 100 blessings every day. Expressing gratitude…also helps us to recognize that we are not solely responsible for our good fortune. Thus gratitude has humility for a partner.

The grace after meals, Birkat Hamazon…is a reminder that the sensory pleasure and nutrition that are part of eating are gifts for which we should express gratitude. As the Torah puts it, “You shall eat, be satisfied and bless.” (Deuteronomy 8:10) Regularly reciting blessings before and after meals [either aloud or silently] can shape attitudes toward eating…[and] shift awareness from physical meals to the spiritual dimension of eating.

[I don’t make it to 100 blessings each day, but I do offer many. Do you cultivate “the attitude of gratitude”? How? In your daily life what are the opportunities for expressing thankfulness?]

From Emmanuel Levinas (“From the Sacred to the Holy: Five New Talmudic Readings” in Nine Talmudic Readings (translated from the French by Annette Aronowicz; Indiana University Press; my insertions): 

Saying grace would be an act of the greatest importance. To be able to eat and drink is a possibility as extraordinary, as miraculous, as the crossing of the Red Sea. We do not recognize the miracle this represents because we live in…for the moment…plenty of everything, and not in a Third World country, and because our memory is short… [T]he route which takes bread from the earth in which it grows to the mouth which eats it is one of the most perilous. It is to cross the Red Sea… So that the verse “You will eat and be full and you will bless” (Deuteronomy 8:10) is not pious verbiage but the recognition of a daily miracle and of the gratitude it must produce in our souls. But the obligation of gratitude goes further. According to the Rabbis’ way of speaking, saying grace arouses favorable angels, intercessors capable of fighting the evil spirits who place themselves between food and those who are hungry and who watch for and create any occasion for preventing bread from reaching the mouth.

…the problem of a hungry world can be resolved only if the food of the owners and those who are provided for ceases to appear to them as their inalienable property, but is recognized as a gift they have received for which thanks must be given and to which others have a right. Scarcity is a social and moral problem and not exclusively an economic one… And now we can understand that this internal and pacific war is to be waged not only by me, who in saying grace gives up possession, but also by those who answer Amen. A community must follow the individuals who take the initiative of renouncing their rights so that the hungry can eat. Very important, then, are these ideas of food and struggle…

…To feed those who are hungry assumes a spiritual elevation…so that the Third World, so-called underdeveloped mankind, can eat its fill, so that the West, despite its abundance, does not revert to the level of an underdeveloped mankind…

[What Levinas terms “spiritual elevation,” the consecration and sanctification of everyday existence, is a goal, a purpose and a hallmark of Judaism. The physiological act of eating,  as he indicates, is thus not an end in itself. It can be made holy, and also extended to feeding the hungry (and not just in the Third World). Similarly, maintaining one’s personal health can be a sacred endeavor as well, one in which we should engage, but which also should encourage us to do the holy work of ensuring that the disadvantaged and the vulnerable have access to the resources with which to maintain their well being too. In addition to healthy and nutritious food what other resources do vulnerable people need? How can we help to provide them?]

May we, you and I, be appreciative of our blessings this Shabbat and every day. May our blessings enable us to bless others. This Sabbath day and each and every day, may we elevate our spirits and make our lives holy. Shabbat Shalom!

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