Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 31 July 2021 / 22 Av 5781

Ekev: Grace of G-D

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

The purpose of the mitzvah of Grace after meals — birkat hamozon, or “bentching” — is to remind us of G-d’s direct, personal care, not only when He delivered miraculous food to us in the desert, but also when our nourishment is obtained by natural means. Every piece of bread is to be regarded as a gift, like the manna dropped from Heaven.

The obligation exists only after eating bread, reminding us that it is not only luxuries which G-d provides, but even the bread that sustains us is not within our power alone to supply. Even the barest necessities are a gift.

The Jewish grace after meals goes well beyond formal gratitude. It is not enough to acknowledge that we owe our existence and sustenance to G-d alone. In the four blessings that comprise the birkat hamazon, we also express commitments which are an outgrowth of that acknowledgement.

In the first blessing, we express the truth that G-d not only sustains every soul, but does so with particular Providence. Every piece of bread and every moment of continued existence are gifts of “His goodness, in favor, in lovingkindness and in mercy.” Depending on the merits and deeds of the recipient, he receives his bread and his life, either as a result of favor, lovingkindness or mercy. In reciting this blessing we vow to devote our lives to the One who gives sustenance to all.

In the second blessing, we express the truth that while G‑d is near to the fate and destiny of all men, Hs is in a special relationship to the Jew. As a testimony to this relationship, He promised and gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish People. This Land, in its prosperity, and in its temporary destruction, is the pledge for Israel’s unique historical position on earth. However, the Land is not mentioned in isolation — it is mentioned in connection with circumcision and Torah. Only by living up to our covenant and commitment will we receive that special care of Divine providence which sustains us “every day, at every hour, and though all time.”

The third blessing relates the continued existence and independence of the individual in the context of a petition for the material and spiritual welfare of the community. When the Temple stood, the petition for the community’s welfare was in the form of a prayer for the preservation of the Temple and the Davidic dynasty, but when the Temple was destroyed, this became a prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem.

The Sages added a fourth blessing in the wake of Bar Kochba’s disastrous rebellion. It was necessary to warn all generations not to repeat this attempt, for not by their own power should they attempt to restore Israel’s crown to its former glory. Rather they must entrust this to Divine providence. Thus, when the people were granted permission to bury the hundreds of thousands who fell at Beitar, the Sages instituted this blessing to perpetuate the memory of the defeat at Beitar in the form of thanksgiving. From the text of the blessing it is clear that the intent is to instill an awareness that human assistance should not be the object of our hopes: “He has done good for us. He does good for us, and He will do good for us; He has bestowed, He bestows, and He will forever bestow upon us grace, kindness, and mercy.”

  • Sources: Commentary, Devarim 8:10

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