Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 18 November 2023 / 5 Kislev 5784

Birkat Hamazon: Blueprint of Jewish Destiny (Part 1)

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

(Zohar HaKadosh to ParshatTerumah)

If you stop and ask your average “Yossi” in your local Shul about the function of Birkat HaMazon, I would imagine the answer you will hear is that Birkat HaMazon is our way of thanking Hashem for the delicious food we have just consumed.

And he would be right. But only up to a point.

When reading through Birkat HaMazon, it is clear that the first paragraph takes care of saying thank you. In the first paragraph we proclaim that Hashem feeds and sustains the entire world. That Hashem prepares the food for us to eat. And we conclude with the blessing, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who feeds all.” If the sole function of Birkat HaMazon is to thank Hashem for what we have eaten, it is clear that we have fulfilled our obligation by reciting the first paragraph, and we should stop there. But we don’t stop there. We continue on and on. We bless the Land of Israel. We make mention of the Brit Milah. We then move to the Davidic dynasty and ask that Yerushalayim be rebuilt. The final blessing in Birkat HaMazon is a reference to a very specific moment in Jewish history. During the uprising of Bar Kochba against the Roman conquerors of the Land of Israel, some nineteen hundred years ago, hundreds of thousands of Jews were massacred by the Romans around the vicinity of Beitar. In their unfathomable wickedness, the Romans decreed for the bodies to be left unburied. Hashem performed a miracle, and the bodies did not decompose until they were finally buried in accordance with Jewish Law – seven years later. Finally, Birkat HaMazon comes to an end with a series of short prayers asking for Hashem’s compassion.

Discounting the first blessing, it seems at first glance as if our having eaten bread and Birkat HaMazon have very little in common with each other! Obviously, this cannot be the case, but what, exactly, are we trying to accomplish when we recite Birkat HaMazon? And why are we mentioning concepts that appear to have no connection whatsoever to our having eaten bread?

Feelings of satiety have a habit of letting us imagine that we are self-sufficient. Not just in the physical realms but in the spiritual realms, as well. The Chidushei HaRim, the first Rebbe from Gur, reveals an astonishing insight into human nature. The Torah relates (Ber. 11:4) that during the reign of Nimrod, the citizens of the world decided to rebel against Hashem and build a towering structure to enable them to go war against Him. The Chidushei HaRim asks what possessed them to imagine they could fight against Hashem? How could they possibly dare believe they would be able to subsist without Hashem? He answers that the preceding verse is the key to understanding their mindset, “They said to one another, ‘Come let us make bricks and burn them in the fire.’ And the brick served them as stone, and the bitumen served them as mortar.”

The Chidushei HaRim explains that this is the first time ever that human beings “created” something by themselves. They took other, preexisting, materials and they turned them into bricks. It was that sense of independence – the feeling of self-reliance – that led them to believe they didn’t need Hashem anymore. They would manage by themselves because they could “create.”

For this reason, Birkat HaMazon revolves around so many concepts. Concepts that seem to share no association with what we imagine that Birkat HaMazon is supposed to represent, which to say “thank you” to Hashem. Birkat HaMazon is teaching us that we must be thankful to Hashem for so much more than “just” the food He has given us. We must learn to recognize from Whom our blessings derive. We must learn how to acknowledge that without Hashem we have nothing. No past, no present and no future. So, within Birkat HaMazon we thank Hashem for what we have just eaten, the present. We thank Him for the future, the Holy Temple and the Mashiach. And we thank Him for the past, for giving us the Torah, for giving us the Land of Israel and for the miracle in Beitar.

To be continued…

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