Birkat Hamazon: The Context for The Command to Thank God
Birkat Hamazon: The Context for The Command to Thank God
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The daily text that is used for the Grace After Meals originates from a verse in Deuteronomy, - “v’achalta v’savata uverachta et Hashem Elokecha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lach.” You should eat, be full or satisfied, and bless God for the good land that He gave you. Read on its own, it seems pretty straightforward. We eat and then we give thanks. However, the command to thank God is just one line out of a larger speech Moses is giving in this chapter. And if you take a look at that speech, it’s seemingly pretty troubling. By taking a closer look at these words in context you can learn more deeply what it means to build a relationship with God, and how to truly give thanks.
If you grew up in Jewish day school like I did, you’re intimately familiar with Benching. I remember those early days in the lunchroom at school, screaming the words to benching, singing that elaborate tune, doing weird hand gestures and banging on the tables, hoping I am performing the benching ritual with enough gusto that my teachers would give me a prize. I lusted particularly after a round green and shiny sticker with the words, “yeled tov” or “good boy” emblazoned on them. I knew if I had one of those stickers, everyone would know what a good bencher I was…
Being significantly older and only somewhat more mature, I think it’s as good a time as any to revisit benching and go beyond memorizing all the words and tunes, and to dip into the meaning of benching. Turns out, there’s actually a Biblical command to thank God for the food we eat, and we quote that command every time we bench - it’s actually right there in the first blessing - “v’achalta v’savata uverachta et Hashem Elokecha al ha’aretz hatovah asher natan lach” - You should eat, be full or satisfied, and bless God for the good land that He gave you. Deuteronomy 8:10. Chapter and verse.
It’s a fairly simple and straightforward command: you ate? You satiated yourself? Thank God who gave you the land where you could grow your crops and livestock. But if we were to look at that Biblical command in context, the rest of Deuteronomy chapter 8, it turns out, it’s not as straightforward and as simple as that.
The command to thank God is just one line out of a larger speech Moses is giving in this chapter. And if you take a look at that speech, it’s seemingly, on its face, pretty troubling. In fact, I’d recommend you pause the video, the section is relatively short, just 18 verses - read it inside and see what you make of it.
Here’s how the speech begins:
Israel, remember the whole journey,
אֲשֶׁר הוֹלִיכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ זֶה ,אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה בַּמִּדְבָּר
that God took you on, for 40 years in the desert.
לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ
So that He could afflict you in order to test you,
לָדַעַת אֶת-אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ הֲתִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָו--אִם-לֹא
to know what's in your heart, whether you'll keep God's laws or not.
God afflicted you by starving you,
and only after you were starving, He fed you the manna.
Whoa whoa whoa...hold on... First of all, Moses basically just admitted that God afflicted the nation of Israel through the past 40 years of the desert, withholding food and water from them...on purpose? That is so cruel. This is a God we're supposed to have a relationship with?
And second of all, why is Moses telling them any of this? This is hardly inspiring. Surely Moses has some speechwriters who could have counseled him to leave it out of his epic speech. "Yes, Moses, I understand that it's all true, theologically speaking, but why focus on it? Meeting God at Sinai, sure. Shema? Perfect. Leave out the part about how the all-powerful God starved us and afflicted us in order to test us. I think you lose more than you gain."
We all have that skeptical friend...the one who has serious problems with "The God of the Hebrew Bible." He's just so angry and vengeful. This would probably not be the week to invite him to your local Torah reading. But let's be brave. Let's ask our skeptical friend to read the rest of the passage with us. What would he say?
How Do We Explain Why We Should Thank God?
Well, right after Moses says that God tested them, He continues, and tells us why: לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ, in order to make it known to Israel,כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם, that mankind doesn't only live on bread; He needs God. And remember God, because he fed you in the desert, and made it so your clothes didn't wear out and your feet didn't swell.
And that’s why, and here’s our verse, v’achalta v’savata u’verachta - when you aren’t starving and deprived, and you do get to eat, you should make sure to thank God!
Okay, so is this answer good enough to satisfy your skeptical friend?
"NO!" he says. God doesn't deserve to be praised because He eventually fed us and clothed us – He is the one who withheld all those things from us in the first place!
So you continue reading: God's going to bring you to a good land – and you'll be really successful, you're going to have everything you want – just remember, you're going to work really hard, and build beautiful homes, and build up your flocks; but be careful, lest you say, כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה, that it was my strength and hard work that generated this success. Remember God.
And so your friend retorts: Who is this God? Why is He so needy? He reminds you that HE took you out of Egypt, He protected you in the desert, He gave you food and water. Don't you for a second say that you accomplished anything yourself. He's the one who did it all. How is that fair?
So this speech, to some of us, may seem upsetting.Maybe some of us are like that friend, who reads this and says, it's just what I suspected. God isn't so nice, and I want nothing to do with a God who is capable of such cruelty. But I think that we're actually fundamentally misreading this story.
We, as humankind, have a fatal flaw – and because of that flaw, we misunderstand God's actions, and His choice to afflict us in the desert. If we understand this flaw, and correct for it, this passage will take on an entirely different light.
The Fatal Flaw: Why We Need to Give Thanks to God
Let's say I have a teenage son. Every day, when he comes home from school, he's hungry. So, he opens the fridge and looks around. 'Hmm, what do I want? Chicken? Rice? Ooh, is that steak? Don't mind if I do!' Then, when I come home, all ready to savor the steak I've been saving, it's gone. My son says, oh, yeah, I was hungry, so, you know…I took it. And off he goes.
And... I'm not upset that he took food from the fridge. He's my son, I buy him food so that he can enjoy it. But...something about this is off. And I think that it's this, the fatal flaw mindlessly taking things for granted. When he opened the fridge that afternoon, he thought, oh good, food. He didn't think, wow, that food looks good, it's so sweet of my dad that he went shopping this morning, and that he always keeps the fridge stocked, so I can always eat when I want to. In fact, I should text him. "Hey Dad, thanks for always keeping my favorite foods around, you're the best! I love you sooooo much! And by the way, can I grab that steak? Smiley emoji! Steak emoji!"
In fact, if I asked him, hey, how'd you get that steak?, he would probably be confused by the question. He'd say something like, "Umm, I opened the fridge...and I got it..." My son is forgetting two very important things: 1) steaks don't just grow in the fridge. Someone put them there. And 2) That someone is me. His food comes from his father.
Of course, I want my son to have food to eat, but I also want him to understand that behind his food is a labor of love. I work to provide food for him, because I care about him. When he takes what he has for granted – when he takes me for granted – that hurts our relationship.
So how do I parent a little better? I have an idea. The next day, when my son comes home from school, and mindlessly opens the fridge for a snack… it's empty. Next day, same thing, nothing. And he is annoyed. Dad, he says to me, what's going on?? Where's the food? I'm starving!
So he understands Step 1 – food doesn't come magically from the fridge. And now, I want him to understand where it does come from, Step 2, he has a loving father, a provider. So we're off to the supermarket. We pick out food, we compare prices, we pay, we stock the car with groceries, and when we get home, we put everything away. And as we do all this, together, it sinks in for him. There is a series of actions, choices, sometimes blood sweat and tears, that are not his own, that go into stocking that fridge. And maybe that means something to him, to know that his father, out of love for him, makes sure that it's always full.
I could have taken this further – I could have taken him to the bank, to deposit my paycheck; to my office, to see how hard I work to provide for him. But at this point, the idea is there.
But how did he learn all this? What is the mechanism by which he understood that lesson? It was the lack before the gain. Those days with the empty fridge made him understand: everything has a source and that even something as mundane as pulling food out of a fridge can be a tool to strengthen the relationship between parent and child.
Now that we understand this great flaw of humanity, let's take a second look at Moshe's speech:
Israel. You're vulnerable to forgetting. You might take things for granted. So remember this 40-year journey in the desert.
לְמַעַן עַנֹּתְךָ לְנַסֹּתְךָ
God afflicted you, to test you, to teach you.
לָדַעַת אֶת-אֲשֶׁר בִּלְבָבְךָ הֲתִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָו--אִם-לֹא
To know what's in your heart, whether you'll keep God's laws or not.
וַיְעַנְּךָ וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ - וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן
He caused you to perceive a lack, and then He fed you with food from the heavens.
God had no interest in torturing you. He provided for you.
שִׂמְלָתְךָ לֹא בָלְתָה, מֵעָלֶיךָ
Your clothing didn't wear out,
וְרַגְלְךָ, לֹא בָצֵקָה–זֶה, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה
And your legs didnt swell, for all these 40 years.
And therefore, וְיָדַעְתָּ, עִם-לְבָבֶךָ
Know in your hearts,
כִּי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְיַסֵּר אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ,
That just as a parent sometimes must chastise his child in order to teach a crucial lesson,
יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְיַסְּרֶךָּ
God does the same to you, to His child.
This analogy that we gave about the teenager? That's not ours. It's Moshe's. Our God is a loving parent, who chastises us...because it's good for us.
Reasons Why We Must Give Thanks to God
Moses explains why: כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה – God is about to bring you to an amazing land, a land of streams of water, deep fountains from valleys and hills. A land of wheat, barley, grapes, dates, pomegranates, olive oil, honey. אֶרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר לֹא בְמִסְכֵּנֻת תֹּאכַל-בָּהּ לֶחֶם – a land in which you'll eat bread without scarcity! לֹא-תֶחְסַר כֹּל, בָּהּ – you'll lack nothing.
This is the full fridge! I can have anything I want, whenever I want! And Moses says, when that happens, וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ – eat and be satiated! God wants you to have food. He wants to provide for you, always. But, וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לָךְ – you must also bless God for the great land that He's given you. Not because God is needy, Moses says. Because this bounty from God, your heavenly parent, is a tool, for building a relationship.
God gives you everything to be enjoyed, in love, and in love, you acknowledge what He's given you. If you merely eat and be full, וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ, you are a teenager. If you acknowledge the source of your food, if you eat together with your beloved, וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ, then you've built a relationship.
But…there's a grave danger.
The Danger of Not Appreciating God's Goodness
This fatal flaw of taking things for granted? There's a time where we are particularly vulnerable, Moses continues:
פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
Lest you forget God.
Lest you eat and be satiated.
וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה, וְיָשָׁבְתָּ
You'll build good homes and settle down.
וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן;
And your livestock will increase,
,וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה-לָּךְ
And your wealth will increase,
וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ, יִרְבֶּה
Everything you have will multiply!
There's a grave danger to having everything, a danger when plenty becomes the natural state of everyday life.
Your heart can become haughty,
וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים
You'll forget God, who took you out of Egypt.
And you'll say in your heart,
כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה
My own strength and power provided me with all this wealth. It's all from ME!
What happens when your teenager goes off to college? He settles into his own place. Now, he stocks his own fridge, he prepares his own meal, he feels so proud about that delicious steak he just cooked….all by himself. All by himself? Is that really true? How did he stock that fridge? He was using mommy and daddy's credit card.
Once we start doing some of the effort, and it can be a lot of effort, we tend to forget the earlier steps, the things that made our successes possible.
Our experience in the land of Israel would be vastly different than in the desert. We'd plow, seed, tend crops, raise cattle and bake bread. And we'd be proud! כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה, my own efforts and my own strength are what caused my success – it feels sort of true! I built this home I live in, I raised this livestock, I accumulated this wealth, from my hard work!
So what is the antidote to this delusion?
The Lesson of Giving Thanks to God
It is an inspiring lesson that Moshe teaches us:
וְזָכַרְתָּ, אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ
כִּי הוּא הַנֹּתֵן לְךָ כֹּחַ, לַעֲשׂוֹת חָיִל
Because it's God who gave you the strength to be successful.
Yes, your strength allowed you to accomplish things – you should be proud of everything you do. But God gave you that strength. In the desert, God gave you bread, directly from the heavens. But when you pull bread out of the earth, remember that you do so by the strength given to you from God. And when you eat – וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ–וּבֵרַכְתָּ – recognize and appreciate that the same God of the desert is the one who facilitates your accomplishments in life, the one who gives you the strength to earn your daily bread.
The Power of Giving God Thanks for All Things
We are the generation even more vulnerable than those who entered the land. They looked to the heavens for rain so they could grow their crops and bake their bread. For us? Bread grows in supermarkets. Earning our daily bread is a metaphor for most of us.
We are much further disconnected from the source of our nourishment than any generation that preceded us. And yet, we must enjoy our great bounty and appreciate the source of our strength.
וּבֵרַכְתָּ, we must bless God, and realize that all we have and all we have achieved is merely a tool for achieving the highest of relationships.