In our household at the end of a Shabbat meal our family usually sings outloud Birkat HaMazon, the Grace after meals. Our 6-year old daughter has taken it upon herself to lead Shir Haamalot, the opening Psalm (126) in the prayer. If someone else dares to start singing before her, she has a fit because she wants to start. This shows the power of ritual to give us a framework towards an ethical imperative, in this case, expressing gratitude. Does this ritual guarantee our children always express gratitude at the appropriate times? No. Sometimes they need gentle reminders; however, ritual helps.
The Jewish practice of reciting grace after meals is rooted in a verse in this morning’s Torah portion. In fact, this same verse is the centerpiece of the liturgical text of Birkat HaMazon The verse reads:
וְאָֽכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ אֶת־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ עַל־הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ
When you have eaten and you are satisfied, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you (Deut. 8:10).
The Torah goes on to explain two verses later, “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ אֶת־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הַמּוֹצִֽיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִֽים
“[B]eware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God who freed you from the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (14). The Sages later enacted the practice that we recite blessings before we partake of food since everything belongs to God, and we seek permission from the owner, as it were, before making use of it. However the Sages also remind us that the grace after meals is Biblically mandated. The Torah itself in its own explanation acknowledges that in moments of satisfaction, it is easy to forget the ultimate source of all goodness. Therefore, when we finish eating, before we run to do something else, our tradition bids us to say Birkat HaMazon.
The Torah reminds us that gratitude helps us guard against complacency and indifference to the world around us when we are blessed with plenty. Last week, I discussed the two recent cases of horrific violence in Israel: a Haredi Jew stabbed six people at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, one of whom died; and one or more members of an extremist Jewish terror cell firebombed a Palestinian home, killing an 18-month-old boy. One has to wonder how the criminals who carried out these blasphemous acts could be so blinded by hate that they failed to imbibe the basic value of gratitude for the blessings of living in a free Jewish state.
Israel and the Jewish community must engage in deep contemplation over these acts of violence to ensure that we do not tolerate a culture of hatred and incitement that led to these acts. Even in this challenging time gratitude is essential. Gratitude helps us avoid total despair when we are down and things are not going our way. The name of our people, Yehudim, grew out of a moment of despair. Leah the matriarch had endured many years of being in the shadow of her sister Rachel, whom Jacob loved. The names of her first three sons, Reuven, Shimon and Levi, reflect her great anguish. Yet when her fourth son is born she says Ha-pa’am odeh et hashem, “This time I give thanks to God.” Al ken kar’ah sh’mo Yehudah (Genesis 29:35). Therefore she named him Judah.” When Leah names Judah, it is the first time in the Torah that anyone thanks God with the verb lehodot, to thank, related to todah. It is Yehudah, Judah, who goes on to become a leader among his brothers. It is his name that lives on in our people today. In this spirit, we should be grateful that the Jewish community across the board in Israel and around the world has been so outspoken against acts of violence committed in the name of Judaism.
My own angst about this particular moment in Jewish history was assuaged to some extent when I read a brilliant poem by Chanie Gorkin, an 11th grader at Beth Rivkah High School in Crown Heights. The poem is titled “Worst Day Ever?” and was posted on PoetryNation.com. Over the last few weeks, it has spread like wildfire on Facebook and social media because it struck such a chord with so many people.
The poem reads:
Today was the absolute worst day ever
And don’t try to convince me that
There’s something good in every day
Because, when you take a closer look,
This world is a pretty evil place.
Some goodness does shine through once in a while
Satisfaction and happiness don’t last.
And it’s not true that
It’s all in the mind and heart
True happiness can be attained
Only if one’s surroundings are good
It’s not true that good exists
I’m sure you can agree that
It’s all beyond my control
And you’ll never in a million years hear me say
Today was a very good day
Now read it from bottom to top, the other way,
And see what I really feel about my day.
The wisdom of Chanie Gorkin teaches us that even in the face of trouble, we must seek something positive. In the wake of unthinkable violence carried out in Israel in the name of Judaism, we must continue to be grateful for the free and democratic State of Israel and pray and act whenever we can for its well-being. We must never take this gift for granted. We must continue to give thanks to God for the blessing lehiyot am hofshi be’artzenu of being a free people in our own land and work hard as a people to live up to the responsibility that this gift entails. The Torah teaches us to be grateful to God for the blessings in our lives, both to guard against despair during difficult times and to guard against complacency when things are going well. Let me close with a prayer that each one of us will find within us the strength to give thanks to God for the blessings in our lives, whatever our present situation. May God hear our thanks and grant us the ultimate gift of Shalom, peace and wholeness.