Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 25 May 2024 / 17 Iyar 5784

Birkat Hamazon: Blueprint of Jewish Destiny (Part 24)

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

(Zohar HaKadosh to ParshatTerumah)

Birkat HaMazon concludes: “I was a youth and also have aged, and I have not seen a righteous person forsaken, with his children begging for bread. Hashem gives strength to His nation, Hashem blesses His nation with peace.”

The first sentence about “I was a youth” is taken from Tehillim (37:25). The Anaf Yosef writes that the verse is teaching us that even when the righteous see their children reduced to having to beg for bread, they do not consider themselves forsaken by Hashem. In their righteousness, they understand that whatever Hashem sends their way is only for their good.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch points out that the verse does not say that the righteous will not find themselves reduced to poverty. That is an untenable proposition because it equates poverty with wickedness, which is clearly not true. Rather, the verse is stating that even if righteous people find themselves completely destitute, they will never be forsaken. They will be supported by others who are in a better financial position than they. Because the essence of the Jewish nation is to help those in need.

In Frankfurt-am-Maine, they had very discreet and creative solution for those who were sitting Shivah but who couldn’t really afford to. In every Shivah home, the communal tzedakah box – already partially filled – was put in a prominent place. If the person sitting Shivah was able to, they, and the people who came to the Shivah, would add more to the tzedakah box. If the family was needy, they were able to take out whatever they needed for the week of Shivah. The system was designed in such a sensitive way that no one ever knew who put money in the tzedakah box or who took out. It is truly a source of inspiration to realize just how careful the community was with the feelings of those in need. One of the most basic definitions of the Jewish nation is that we are merciful and compassionate, always ready to assist anyone who requires support.

Birkat HaMazon ends with the stirring words from Tehillim (29:11), “Hashem gives strength to His nation, Hashem blesses His nation with shalom.” It is fascinating to note that the word shalom brings to a close not just Birkat HaMazon. Shalom is so intrinsic to the Jewish nation that it is also the final word of the entire set of Mishna, as well as the last word of the final blessing in the Amidah and the last word in Birkat Kohanim.

The last tractate in the Mishna (Uktzin 3:12) concludes with a teaching in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Chalafta, “The Holy One, Blessed is He, found no vessel to hold blessing for Israel other than peace, as it is stated (Tehillim 29:11), ‘Hashem gives strength to His nation, Hashem blesses His nation with peace.’” As Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579-1654) writes so eloquently in his formative and indispensable commentary on the Mishna, Tosefot Yom Tov, it is an inescapable fact that no blessing in the world can be sustained in the absence of shalom.

Why is shalom so indispensable that its message repeats itself in so many fundamental dimensions of our relationship with Hashem? The Vilna Gaon offers a parable to explain. Shalom is like a barrel that is constructed with individual staves of wood that are pressed tightly together. The tighter they slot into each other, the less chance there is that the contents will leak out. In the same way, says the Vina Gaon, if the Jewish nation draws together and we all learn how to coexist in a state of shalom, we will be able to hold all of the blessings that Hashem pours into us constantly, without losing even a “drop.”

The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavat Chesed 2:5) writes, “When we do chesed, it arouses Hashem’s chesed on His nation, even when they do not have Zechut Avot. We live at a time when strife and hardships prevail in the world. We don’t have any other counsel to be saved from the travails that come each day, other than to be occupied with chesed.”

The Chofetz Chaim wrote those words some 136 years ago. And they are equally applicable today – if not more so.

To be continued…

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