Among the many topics covered In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is what we find in Deuteronomy 8:10 “You shall eat and be satisfied and you shall bless the Lord your God for (or “on”) the good land, which He has given to you.”
This commandment seems clear: If you have eaten a full meal, you need to bless God for the Land that God gave you, a suite of blessings we know today as Birkat Ha-mazon or the Grace after Meals. Except for people like myself before I underwent lap band surgery (until which I never felt full and satisfied when eating), we all intuitively grasp the conditions upon which we should bless God. But why must we mention the land rather than merely the food?
Perhaps the Torah is prodding us to ecological awareness: Yes, the food is in our bellies and yes, we know its source is living and thus miraculous, but we are very likely – day in and day out – to forget the intermediary steps of agriculture and society that are necessary for the satisfaction of our physical needs. We are not merely animals who chow down on chunks of prey, but rather human beings who can (and should) reflect on and acknowledge every bit of the process not only out of gratitude, but in order that through stewardship we might assure the continued feeding of the masses into the future.
But maybe there is even a further explanation of reminding ourselves of “the land.” It is the Land, upper case: the Land of Israel, a land with which we Jews have had a symbiotic relationship. Not only must we aspire to eco-friendliness, the Torah tells us, but to eco-morality. Our use of and behavior in the Land are being watched and judged, for it demands of us that we follow the laws of God to do what is right and just. Perhaps United Nations representatives or bloggers have no right to hold Israel and the Jews to a higher standard of morality in our collective conduct, but the Torah never minces words about the added responsibilities we have by being the inhabitants of this wonderful country. We must be good enough to deserve to remain there!
As I mentioned before, the Grace After Meals is actually a conglomerate of four blessings. The final one, “Hatov Vehameitiv” (God who is good and who does good) was added following the battle at Beitar, the last battle in the series of Jewish revolts against Rome. Beitar was a mountain stronghold near Beit Lechem that was both situated and fortified in such a way that the Romans could not conquer it. (It seems the Jews had dug access tunnels to import food and supplies as the siege wore on for more than two years.) Finally, though, on the 9th of Av (again!) the Roman general Gaius Severus was able to overwhelm and destroy the last vestige of self-rule among our ancestors until 1948. The phrase “Beitar will not fall again” became a pivotal rallying cry throughout millennia of exile and in the newly reborn modern State of Israel.
To require the blessing that “God is and does good” in the aftermath of the fall of Beitar buggers our sense of morality and justice. How can the Rabbis have been so ‘tone-deaf’ as to associate God’s goodness with one of the most brutal and vicious struggles known to mankind, ending in a crushing defeat for our people?
As we emerge from the funk associated with Tisha B’Av and its multiple destructions, we must realize how the constant assertion of God’s goodness multiple times each day transformed what might have been the absolute end of Judaism and the Jewish people into a transcendence that has outlived all the great powers of the ancient world. God is good, even when we cannot see it. There is justice in the world, even when it is only evident in our own defiant resistance to despair. The fall of Beitar was not permitted to be an ending. We needed to survive long enough to demonstrate what we asserted: that there is good.
This summer’s war against Hamas’ rockets and tunnels has been debilitating and has cast a dark pall over the sense of security most Israelis felt day to day. As we say our blessings after each meal and marvel at the ability of food to grow and at the morality that being the people of Israel demands of us, let us not forget Beitar and its ultimate lesson: No matter how long the siege nor how stinging the defeat might seem in any short-term view, we Jews need to dedicate our lives over the long haul to a world wherein it can be demonstrated that the God of the universe will make goodness triumph.