Our Sages instituted an entire series of birkat hanehenin, blessings one recites before enjoying any of the pleasures of this world – food, drink, fragrances, sights, sounds, etc. There is one bracha, however, which we continue to recite to this day, that is not d’rabanan but from the Torah. This is Birkat Hamazon, Grace after Meals.
In this week’s Torah portion, just before his death, Moshe gives Am Yisrael a preview of all the wonderful things that await them in Eretz Yisrael – flowing rivers, bubbling springs, the Seven Species, overwhelming abundance, minerals and natural resources, etc. Then Moshe commands Am Yisrael “Eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem your G-d for the good land He has given you” (Devarim 8:10).
Two weeks ago, on Tisha B’Av, we read of how abundant the Land of Israel really was. In the stories of the Destruction of the Second Temple (Gittin 35b) the Gemara relates how the storehouses of the three wealthiest men – Kalba Savua, Nakdimon ben Gurion and Ben Tzitzit haKesat – contained enough reserves of food, oil, wine and wood for fuel, for the entire city of Jerusalem for 21 years. This is unprecedented.
Just seven verses before the command of Birkat Hamazon, Moshe recalls the miracle of the mon, but not exactly in the way we would expect. Instead of exalting the virtues of the mon – the miracle of how it descended from Heaven, fresh each day, encased between two layers of dew, the unlimited flavors and textures it could acquire, etc. – Moshe says that when Hashem gave us mon in the desert, it was to torture and starve us and to teach us the lesson that “not on bread alone does man exist, but on all the words of G-d does man exist” (Devarim 8:3) – from which the title of this column is derived.
That’s not exactly how we picture the mon – as a form of “torture” and “starvation.” In fact, the spies did not want to enter Eretz Yisrael because they had it “so good” in the midbar.
The Da’at Zekenim and the Rosh explain what was meant by “torture.” Today when we go shopping, we stock our pantries for a week or more with dry goods, cans, dairy, etc., we go to bed each night in the secure knowledge that at least when we wake up the following morning, there will be food to eat. In the midbar, Am Yisrael did not have that security. They lived day to day with empty pantries (except for Friday). To sleep easy with no food reserves, knowing that tomorrow everything will be okay, requires an enormous level of bitachon, trust, in Hashem. It was thus a form of “torture.”
The Chidah describes what Moshe meant when he says that Hashem “starved” us. The mon could acquire any flavor or texture the person eating it wished for. It could taste like a T-bone steak, caviar, pizza, or anything that tickled their fancy. There was only one caveat – it always looked like white coriander seeds. Part of the enjoyment of food is visual. Just visit the produce section in the supermarket and you are flooded with visual stimuli, different colors, shapes, sizes …. The first bracha in Birkat Hamazon says, “b’chein b’chesed uv’Rachamim.” What does “b’chein” mean? When Hashem created this world, He provided us with an abundance and variety of food with different colors, shapes and so forth to make them visually attractive as well as tasty. The mon, which lacked this visual stimulus, was a kind of “starvation” because one of our primary senses related to food was not satisfied.
Moshe tells Am Yisrael that the reason Hashem did this was to teach us an important lesson in preparation for entering Eretz Yisrael after the midbar. When we reached the Promised Land we would be bombarded with every form of abundance – tactile, visual, oral, aural – nothing would be lacking. Inherent in this plethora of wealth, however, lies a danger. We may be tempted to only look “skin deep” – to only see the outer crust and not remember that below, in the inner crumb, is Hashem’s hand in everything. Every second of every day, Hashem labors continually to re-create the world and infuse it with the energy that keeps everything spinning and every natural law functioning as “normal.”
The outer “crust” is a bonus – it is a chesed that Hashem does for us to make life stimulating. However, we are required to gaze inward and understand the inner truth, the essence – that it is all thanks to Hashem’s word that everything we take for granted in the world exists.
This, incidentally is the same principle as the Lechem Hapanim in the Mikdash (Meir Panim), which serves as a conduit for the Heavenly abundance in the material world. The Lechem Hapanim is visually appealing, spectacular in fact, but behind the outward appearance harbors infinite depth, to remind us of the true Source of our abundance and that we must have gratitude for it. This is also the essence of Birkat Hamazon. The Sefer HaChinuch says, one who recites Birkat Hamazon in the correct way (reciting it from a text, not by heart, aloud with joy, sitting down, suitably attired, without distractions, and with awe and respect), will merit wealth and honor their entire life!
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: What kind of laundry did Am Yisrael have in the midbar?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: How many differences are there between the Ten Commandments in Yitro and Va’Etchanan? There are 14. “Pesel ve’kol/kol,” “al/ve’al Shileishim,” “Ule’Shomrei Mitzvotai/Mitzvoto (kri-ktiv),” “Zachor/Shamor + ka’asher tzivcha Hashem E-lokecha,” “Uvehemtecha/Ve’shorcha ve’chamorcha vechol behemtecha + lema’an yanuach, etc.” “Ki sheshet yamim etc./Vezacharta, etc.” “Kabed et avicha ve’et imecha lema’an etc./ Kabed et avicha ve’et imecha ka’asher etc.” “Lo tin’af/ve’lo tin’af”, “lo tignov/ve’lo tignov”, “lo ta’aneh/ve’lo ta’aneh,” “eid shaker/eid shav,” “Lo tachmod, etc./Ve’lo tachmod, etc.”