Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 9 March 2024 / 29 Adar Alef 5784

Birkat Hamazon: Blueprint of Jewish Destiny (Part 16)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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“Anyone who recites Birkat HaMazon is blessed through it.”

(Zohar HaKadosh to ParshatTerumah)

The requests continue: “The Compassionate One, may He break the yoke of oppression from our necks and bring us upright to our land.”

What is the “yoke of oppression”? A yoke is very heavy and uncomfortable. It is placed on the neck of an ox and it is the system that controls the ox so that it can prepare the fields for planting. At a later date, the ox is then harnessed again to harvest the crops. Without a doubt, if the ox could speak, it would protest vociferously against the yoke. It is cumbersome and burdensome and not something that an ox would willingly choose to bear. But, one thing is absolutely certain: without a yoke, an ox cannot be productive.

However counterintuitive it may sound, the “yoke of oppression” is actually something that allows us, Hashem’s chosen nation, to remain focused on doing Hashem’s Will. Throughout Jewish history, whenever we lose our focus to serve Hashem sincerely and wholeheartedly, a foreign power arises and “sits on our necks,” serving as a reminder of our obligation to act as Hashem’s ambassadors in this world.

When we ask Hashem to “break the yoke of oppression,” we are recalling that the yoke will be removed only when we are finally doing what Hashem demands from us. Because once the “yoke of oppression” is broken, it will never be replaced. The verse in Vayikra (26:13) states, “I broke the staves of your yoke.” Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Ullmann (1863-1931), the Rabbi of Bistritz, Romania, explains that often at the end of the season, a farmer will break the staves of the yoke. But he will only ever break the yoke itself when there is no longer any need for it.

So too is it regarding Hashem. Due to our own actions, Hashem sends us into exile and then redeems us when we have learned the lesson of the exile. But, as we lose focus again, He then sends us into exile again, and the cycle repeats itself over and over. And here we are, anticipating the final redemption. Anxiously awaiting that precious moment when Hashem will break the “yoke of oppression” once and for all. This does not mean that we will be left “yoke-less”. Rather, it is only by enthusiastically accepting the yoke of the Majesty of Hashem and His Torah that the “yoke of oppression” will be permanently removed.

Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky (1911-2000), the Rebbe of Slonim (more commonly referred to as the Netivot Shalom, the name of the series of brilliant Torah thoughts), once asked some of his Chassidim, “At which moment does Kabbalat HaTorah [the Receiving of the Torah] take place for us in our generation?” One Chassid replied, “On Shavuot morning, as the dawn breaks.” Another Chassid suggested that it occurs when the Ten Commandments are read during Torah reading. A third Chassid proposed yet a different moment. And the Rebbe replied, “Kabbalat HaTorah happens when a person accepts the yoke of Torah!”

Tellingly, we do not just ask for the “yoke of oppression” to be broken. We also ask for Hashem to bring us “upright to our land.” This requires explanation, because our Sages teach (Kiddushin 31a) that it is forbidden for a person to walk “bekomah zekufah – with an upright posture,” as it displays arrogance. However, as the final redemption unfolds – may it be very, very soon – we will be brought to the holy Land of Israel by Hashem’s emissaries in a state of exaltation and purity. We will be ready to do His Will and to serve Him with all our might. At that time, walking with an upright posture will not be a sign of arrogance. Rather, it will be an expression of the dignity and the reverence that we feel, knowing that we have been chosen by Hashem to serve Him.

To be continued…

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