Minutes of Torah
This week’s parashat Eikev addresses issues with which many of us struggle, especially as we regulate our activities in the face of the pandemic. As we experience ourselves as being more and more self-reliant and self-sufficient, and particularly when we look at others as a potential source of infection, how can we maintain a sense of trust in being supported by others and the resulting connection to those others?
For guidance we might want to look to Moses’ instructions to the Israelites in this week’s portion which became the basis for the practice of the birkat hamazon, the blessing after the meal. After reciting all the bounty awaiting the Israelites in the Promised Land, Moses states:
“You shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land which God has you given you.”
This verse lays out a clear sequence for the Jewish practice of blessing after our meals: first, commence eating; then, be sated; and finally, bless God.
But then Moses immediately anticipates a basic inclination of our nature: when we are satisfied, we tend to take for granted the source of our satisfaction and forget to offer gratitude. We need to be alert to the fact that the experience of being ‘full’ often functions as a kind of spiritual sedative. It lulls us to sleep, leaving less room for awareness of the deeper sources of that which fills us up. This is the “forgetting” against which Moses warns the people, and us.
The 19th century Hassidic rabbi whose commentary on Torah went by the name of Sefat Emet (‘true speech’) warns against the “forgetting” which may follow the experience of eating and being sated, and he provides an antidote. Since a person only ‘forgets’ the source of her bounty when she is satisfied, the blessing practice that follows serves as an immediate corrective.
The practice of reciting a blessing restores our attention to the source of all which supports and sustains us. When we are “full,” we are susceptible to the illusion that we are separate, self-sufficient, and self-sustaining, and that we are the source of our blessings. Reciting a blessing is a practice that can immediately bring our attention back to the much deeper source from which our lives unfold.
Hence, our goal is to minimize the length of the “forgetting,” the period in which our mind wanders off from being grateful. The blessing after meals may be understood as a way in which we quickly bring our attention back to awareness of our dependence and interdependence, after our mind has strayed off in which we mistake ourselves as our ultimate source.
And yet we can eliminate entirely the period of ‘forgetting’ by following a principle known in the animal kingdom, and illustrated by this proposition:
“A donkey who cannot reason, nevertheless knows his master (i.e., the source of the donkey’s food) as he eats; shouldn’t we humans do so as well!?”
This parable illustrates the practice that we strive for: as we take in that which sustains us physically, we arouse the experience of being sustained by a mysterious something which lies beyond our individual selves. We take a bite of food and experience everything that went into its creation being absorbed into our body to nourish us. And then we receive a breath between bites and notice a life-force which is sustaining us each moment.
In that moment, we might sense a fundamental connection with the food and the breaths and allow ourselves to trust that they will carry us the next few hours down the river of our life. And even if only for a moment, gratitude arises naturally within us. We allow space to be filled to satiation—not with food or drink, but with gratitude for being part of this process.
And in this manner, we do not simply recite the blessing after the meal. We become the blessing.