Birkat HaMazon: More than a Simple Thank You

February 18, 2016Rabbi David Z. Vaisberg

When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land given to you.
Deuteronomy 8:10

No matter what’s going on, I always feel better after bensching (praying Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after meals).

Whether I’m praying together with friends or silently with the tune running through my head, the melody is uplifting, cheerful, and energetic. I'm filled with the nostalgia of praying together among friends at camp and youth group, which connects me with them across time and space. I’m expressing gratitude, and just as smiles -- even when they are forced -- have a way of making the smiler happier, so too does stating gratitude cause us to feel that gratitude a bit more. But most importantly, when I pray Birkat HaMazon, I enter into relationship with the Holy One, the Eternal, the Source of Life.

To eat without prayer can certainly be pleasurable, but the act ends as quickly as it began when that final morsel has been swallowed. But, when food exists as part of a relationship, it becomes something more. When we eat a meal with friends, we nourish our bodies with the food, and we nourish our souls by engaging with those at the table.

When loved ones prepare a meal for us, we thank them. We express appreciation by asking about the recipes and ingredients or remarking on how the flavors danced on our tongues or reminded us of our grandmothers’ kitchens. Through our actions, we make them feel good about their gracious actions on our behalf.

Imagine if we offered that same outpouring of praise to the cheese monger who sold us that block of cheddar, the farmer who painstakingly grew our tomatoes, or the factory-owner whose business produces the bottles that hold our wine. Imagine if we could enter into relationships of appreciation with everyone who contributed to our satiation. To do so would elevate them, and in connecting with another human being, elevate us in turn.

When would this praise best be offered? One could say "thank you" at the time of purchase or receipt, but having not yet tried the food and being distracted by hunger, our thank you would not be as sincere as it might be. After eating, though, we feel good. We feel full. It is with this fullness of heart and mind that we offer thanks, and devote our energies to giving back.

This is what Birkat HaMazon is all about. Saying thank you is a prescription -- to ensure humility and appreciation -- against the consequences of taking this world for granted. It's a blessing, it's connecting to the Source of all, and it's developing a regular practice of acknowledging our gratitude.

When we bensch Birkat HaMazon, whether we use the long or short version, we do far more than simply say thank you.

We begin with the Birkat Hazan -- an invitation to bless that comes from the prayer leader to those who are with him or her, which is followed by that first sacred blessing that thanks God directly for our food and sustenance.

Second comes Birkat Ha’aretz, the blessing that thanks God for the land that produces so much nutritious bounty; in this process of blessing we move from the micro of our tables to the macro of a sustaining eco-system.

After our bodies have been satisfied, we pray for more: in asking for the rebuilding of Jerusalem -- Birkat Yerushalayim -- we request the well-being of our Jewish spirits.

Noting how much goodness we have around us and how much more is still needed, we pray Birkat HaTov v’HaMeitiv, asking God to bring blessing, a little bit of which we have just tasted, to all who need it.

Finally, like all good prayer services, we end with a request for peace, a Birkat Shalom. Oseh shalom bimromav… May the one who makes peace in the high heavens, make peace for us, for all Israel, and all who inhabit the earth. Amen.

Birkat HaMazon connects us to that which connects the entire universe. We elevate, exalt, and bless. We fill ourselves with gratitude, turning this positive energy toward those who have been good to us, and to all those in need of goodness. To bless after meals acknowledges that we are never isolated when we receive and consume. Rather, we are part of an amazing, interconnected universe and in relationship with many, including the One who cares for us all.

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