It’s the end of the meal that I most anticipate. Odd, I know. Most people can’t wait to begin to eat, tasting the food on their plate, enjoying what lies before them. Don’t get me wrong; I love to eat, especially when I am in the company of great people. But with the end of a meal comes a special opportunity to give thanks for the food I have just eaten together with those at my table.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ekev, we read the verse that is the source text for what we now call Birkat HaMazon (and also to the blessing before we eat, ensuring our meals are bookended by words of praise and thanks). “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal God for the good land given to you.” (Deuteronomy 8:10) There are three significant aspects of this verse: satisfaction, gratitude, and connection to the land of Israel.
The concepts of being satisfied with what we have eaten and giving thanks fit together naturally. But does this mean we only have to say these words if our bellies are stuffed, or if we have loved every bite of what we have eaten? No. In fact tradition teaches that we offer these words of thanks even if we have eaten a piece of bread or matzah as small as the size of an olive.
Why? Perhaps to remind us that feeling satisfied doesn’t necessarily mean feeling full. Perhaps to remind us that even the smallest bite of food is worthy of thanksgiving. Perhaps to make it possible for the largest number of people to fulfill this commandment, since one must not necessarily have feasted to offer thanks. And, finally, I believe, to draw attention to those who live with food insecurity. We are each commanded to offer thanks for eating, which necessarily implies a commandment to ensure that everyone has access to food. Each time I eat and recite these words I am reminded to work toward reducing food insecurity: bringing food for pantry collections, volunteering in the community garden at Barnert Temple where the fresh produce is donated to the Center for Food Action, working to eliminate the systems that continue to make it hard for everyone to have access to healthy food.
The third part of our verse draws us to the covenantal land promised to the Israelites, the land of Israel. So, some might ask, does this mean we only have to offer thanks for food grown in Israel? Or only if we are eating our food while on that land? Nope. Even the 13th century Spanish sage Nachmanides teaches that these words draw us to give thanks for the land no matter where we dine. This connection to Israel, alone, is significant. But I believe there is an even deeper level of meaning for us to be gleaned.
Our relationship to the physical land taught to us throughout the Torah is about the way we care for those around us. We must watch over and protect the vegetation and animals entrusted to us, as caregivers of the world. When harvesting our vineyards and fields, we must leave what grows at the corners and what drops from our arms for those who are hungry. Every seven years we take a break from farming and enjoy the bounty of our fields together, equally, with each member of our community. Drawing our hearts and minds to the mutual covenantal promise of land must also direct our hearts and minds to translating those values into relevant, modern day decisions.
When possible, my family buys and eats food that is sustainably grown, harvested and delivered. Some of the questions we consider are: How are the workers who cared for the farm and who harvested the produce treated and compensated? What chemicals or antibiotics were used and what is their impact not only on our food but also on the greater ecosystem? How were the animals treated while they were alive? How humane was their slaughter? Where does the profit from my purchase go, what organizations are supported, directly or indirectly, with the money I spend on food?
Eating is a holy activity. Before we eat, we acknowledge our connection to being part of something bigger than just ourselves, the gift of having sacred resources before us that we turn into food that sustains us. At the conclusion of our meal, when we have had our fill, we give thanks. And we commit ourselves to living out the ideals embedded in this ancient verse, which compels us to make well informed, Jewish decisions about what we eat.
The text(s) for Birkat HaMazon vary in length and can be found in many prayer books, bentchers (a small book that contains many blessings related to eating), or online. Interested in trying out offering a blessing after you eat but you don’t know the full prayer? Never fear. The Talmud (Berachot 40b) shares the story of a shepherd named Benjamin who offered an abbreviated version in Aramaic, his native, secular language. You can begin by offering your own words of thanksgiving, which might lead you to learning the traditional prayers. Or, you can start with Benjamin’s offering: B’rich rachamana, malka de’alma marey d’hai pita. Blessed is the merciful One, ruler of the world, creator of this bread.