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Parashat Ekev 5775 — 08/05/2015

Parashat Ekev 5775 — 08/05/2015

Deut 7:12 – 11:25

And you will eat and be satisfied and you will bless the Lord your Gd for the good Land that He gave you.  (8:10)

The Rabbis derive the obligation of Birkat haMazon, the blessing after a meal (at which bread is eaten).  The actual text of the blessing developed over many centuries.  There are four blessings:

  1. For sustenance, authored by Moshe Rabbeinu when the manna began to fall
  2. For the Land, authored by Yehoshua when he led the nation into the Land of Israel
  3. For Jerusalem, authored by Kings David and Solomon
  4. For Gd, Who is Good and does Good, authored by the Sages of Yavneh in response to the miraculous preservation of the bodies of those slaughtered by the Romans at Beitar

Rav Kook explains the order of these blessings:

… The blessings follow a clear progression: from the needs of the individual to those of the nation; and from our physical needs to our spiritual aspirations.

The very act of eating contains a certain spiritual danger.  Overindulgence in gastronomic pleasures can lower one’s goals to the pursuit of sensual gratification and physical enjoyment.

To rectify this tendency we need to take corrective action step-by-step:

  1. The first rung of the ladder relates to our own personal physical welfare (food)
  2. On the next rung we express our concern for the physical welfare of the nation (Land)
  3. On the third rung, we focus on the spiritual well-being of the nation (Jerusalem/Temple)
  4. Lastly, we aspire to be a “light unto the nations,” a holy people who influence and uplife all who were created in Gd’s image.

Incidentally, elsewhere Rav Kook clarifies why the birkat hamazon is recited after the meal (the blessing hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz is said before eating) – the principle benefit of eating is not the fleeting experience of the taste of the food (for which we would bless before enjoying it), but its nutritional value.  Since this value comes after we eat and are beginning to digest the food, we bless Gd after eating.  Birkat hamazon of course is the more extensive of the two blessings.

In Parashat Vayera Rav Kook wrote of the potential danger in eating, discussing the halachah of mayim acharonim – washing our hands after eating:

   A certain spiritual peril lurks in any meal that we eat.  Our involvement in gastronomic pleasures inevitably increases the value we assign to such activities, and decreases the importance of spiritual activites, efforts that truly perfect us.  As a preventive measure, the Sages decreed that we should wash our hands before eating … The physical meal we are about to partake suddenly takes on a spiritual dimension.

   Despite this preparation, our involvement in the physical act of eating will reduce our sense of holiness to some degree.  To counteract this negative influence, we wash our hands after the meal … we wash away the salt of Sodom, the residue of selfish preoccupation in sensual pleasures … which can blind our eyes to the needs of others.

As one might expect of an essay on Jewish thought, food plays a central role!  But seriously folks, our focus on (or obsession with) food goes to the central conundrum of the human condition.  Why do we need food?  Simply put, we have a body, and our body is subject to the laws of physics and biology.  For our body to continue to exist and to thrive and grow it requires the input of energy and material.  Nevertheless, our bodies exist for a reason, and that reason is to house the soul and to provide challenges so the soul can grow and expand.  But for that to happen we have to put our primary focus on our soul and its needs.  Any physical sensation has the potential to drag us away from a soul-orientation to a body-orientation.

The solution to this conundrum is that we have to benefit from the world not for the sake of the sensual pleasures it provides, but for the sake of the growth of our soul.  This is called doing action l’shem Shamayim, “for the sake of Heaven.”  If we eat, the focus should be on maintaining and strengthening the body so that we can accomplish what we need to accomplish in the world.  We should sleep, not out of sloth and inertia, but so our body will be refreshed and our mind clear so that we can do Gd’s Will.  It’s not a matter of doing anything different (assuming that we are already following the dictates of Torah) – rather it’s a matter of adjusting our focus in the activities we are already doing.

I think this is one of the purposes of the blessings we say whenever we benefit from the world.  Of course we are required to acknowledge that Gd is the Source of whatever it is that we’re enjoying, but we also have to reflect on the nature of the object we’re going to enjoy, what it is going to do for us, and that should lead us to consider what we are doing here on earth.  Thus the blessings we say (or should be saying) all day can be a powerful technique for our spiritual evolution.  It just takes a little thought and intentionality!

Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 3

He [ben Azzai] used to say: Do not despise any person, and don’t stay apart from any thing, for there is no person who does not have his time, nor any thing that does not have its place.

Of course it’s just wrong to despise anyone, and our Sages tell us that one who is cavalier about any thing or class of things, will lose access to benefit from those things.  But there is a deeper message here than just practical, or even ethical advice.  I think ben Azzai is telling us something very fundamental about creation: creation is perfect, it comes from a perfect Gd, and it will reflect Gd’s perfection perfectly, if we don’t get in the way.  How do we get in the way?  By making judgments about other people and about the environment.  By trying to impose our order and our value system on people and events.  By trying to assert our superiority and not recognizing just how small we actually are compared to Gd.  Everything that comes into our life, whether we think of it as good or bad, is given to us to give us the opportunity to grow.  If we embrace that opportunity, we gain.  If we fight it, we just exhaust ourselves.  Our Sages tell us that we must bless Gd for the “bad” as well as the “good.”  For good tidings we say Blessed is Gd Who is Good and does good.  For other tidings we say Blessed is the True Judge.  But in the World to Come, no matter what occurs, we will say Blessed is Gd Who is Good and d oes good.  The events may not change, but our evaluation of them changes – we come to recognize everything as good, as coming from Gd’s beneficent Hand.