Parshat Ekev teaches us a transcendent lesson of Jewish living. Long before day-planners, computers and smart phones, with calendars and apps that reminder us constantly of what we are supposed to be doing, the Rabbinic interpretation of the Torah enabled Jews to schedule our lives, “by Jewish time” and thereby remind us of what was important in a Jew’s life. The Jewish calendar no only sets aside a weekly Shabbat and an annual calendar of Holy Days, but also a daily structure of worship and blessings. One of these structural tools is the tradition to express gratitude to God for the food which sustains our bodies, which is derived from the words of this week’s Torah reading. In chapter 8 verses 7-10 of this Deuteronomy we read:
“For Adonai your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill, a land of wheat and barley; of vines figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat without stint; where you will lack nothing; When you have eaten your fill, you give thanks to Adonai your God for the good portion of this earth that God has given to you.”
The rabbis of the Talmud derived from this passage the command to recite Birkat Ha Mazon the grace after a meal. The Talmud says that the purpose of these blessings is to make each of us realize that without God, none of us, despite our efforts and labors, would ever enjoy the gifts of this world. It is a clear statement that gratitude is a central value of Judaism. In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot 48b), the rabbis expand upon the command in Deuteronomy 8 and teach us that eating a meal gives us the opportunity to reflect daily on four transcendent themes of Judaism through the four core blessings of the Birkat Ha Mazon.. The first reminds us that God is ultimately responsible for our nourishment. The second draws our attention to the land of Israel and the uniqueness of its produce. The third reminds us of our religious yearnings for a religious center for the Jewish People; the fourth completes the message by reinforcing that God is good and that we have the opportunity and responsibility to be partners with God in spreading Goodness throughout the world.
A short lesson in the Hebrew grammar of this passage can underscore this point. “U’vayrachta”, which is a derivative of the Hebrew word, “Baruch”, is literally translated into English, as and you will bless. Yet, in the modern Jewish translations of Torah the word in our verse under discussion, is rendered as the command Give Thanks, based upon the understanding that every time we say “Baruch Ata Adonai”we are not saying to God; “You are Blessed”, but rather, we are saying, thank you to God, for the blessings that God bestows upon us. When any of us say “Baruch Ata Adonai” as the opening of a Bracha, are we not expressing gratitude to God that we are alive; and that very fact, is a blessing in and of itself? The message of the Birkat Ha Mazon is to be grateful for what we have and to commit ourselves to be God’s agent in the world. When we live each day being just a little more decent, with just one additional grain of sand of integrity, we should be both grateful and satisfied. Each of us should learn to say “Today, I lived the best I could; and I am grateful that I did. Tomorrow is another opportunity to add more grains of goodness by expressing gratitude to God in both word and deed.
In the spirit of the rabbinic saying “Shivim Panim L’Torah” which while literally meaning “there are seventy faces to Torah”, but in actuality, teaches us that every time we study a text of Torah, we should seek to understand it anew in the context of our lives, I suggest to you today that we should read: “V’achalta and you shall eat; Vsavata and you shall be satisfied: Uvayrachta and you shall give thanks;” as a command applicable to more than eating.
To me, the author of Deuteronomy is calling upon all of us to be grateful for our lot in life. In the Birkat Ha Mazon, we express our gratitude to the one who prepared the meal; the ones with whom we eat; as well as to God. So too, should we not daily give thanks to God for the gift of life and give thanks to our family friends and community, for their roles in enhancing the quality of our lives. The more I thought about the issue of gratitude, I began to question why the recitation of Blessings before and after we eat is necessary. Mitzvot generally command us to do what we ought to do, rather than what we do instinctively. The Torah teaches us that no one can be perfect, not even Moses. And that doing our best is good enough. If God can accept us with our imperfections we too have to be satisfied with where we are and what we are doing right now; while we try each day to do better. The challenge in life is not to be the best; but rather to both do our best and strive every day to be just a little better.
In our URJ Torah a Modern Commentary, Rabbi W Gunther Plaut z”l in his Gleanings commentary on Chapter 8 of Deuteronomy, speaks of how the Rabbis of the Talmud expanded upon the command to give thanks after one eats in the form that became Birkat Ha Mazon, to include the Mitzvah of reciting “Ha Motze” before we eat. Rabbi Plaut also quotes the 19th century sage Chatam Sofer who in commenting on verse 3 of Deuteronomy 8, “ Man does live on Bread alone” as teaching that no one should focus his (or her), life merely on making a living. A person’s true purpose is to sustain oneself in order to have the strength to learn and teach; observe and act: and uphold Torah, in truth and faithfulness”
My brother, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, in his Torah commentary Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah, (Jewish Lights, 2016) comments upon a complementary verse to the ones we have been discussing found later in our Parsha. In Deuteronomy 10:16 we are commanded “circumcise the foreskin of your hearts so that you (plural) will no longer be stiff-necked”
Mark suggests “this refers to the need to remove the thin membrane that too often separates the individual from a clear connection to other people and to God. Like a cataract obscures our physical sight, this membrane clouds our spiritual, emotional and intellectual vision.”
Mark then asks his readers to consider three questions:
How do you continually remove the cloudiness from your thinking and feeling so that you are truly living according to your soul?
How do you give dignity to all human beings and help everyone have a voice in our societal discussions?
When and how do each of us and all of us surrender to God’s Will?
As our calendar is about to turn to the month of Elul and the daily sounding of the Shofar, the call to gratitude for our physical sustenance and the reminder that we do not live by bread alone that are both found in Deuteronomy 8, alone with the commentaries of the Rabbis from the Talmudic times to modernity, call upon me, to not only be grateful for the blessings of my life, but also command me, in the approaching year of 5770 to be a better partner with God in providing physical, spiritual intellectual and emotional sustenance to all.
Rabbi Neal Borovitz was elected the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge in June 2013 after serving the synagogue as rabbi for the previous 25 years.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).