This dvar Torah is an English version of one that appears in this week’s issue of “Shabbat Shalom,” the weekly Torah portion sheet published by Oz VeShalom/Netivot Shalom. The Hebrew version can be found here . Its dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher Sanford “Whitey” Watzman, who left us one year ago in the month of Av.
The modern religious public grapples with any number of challenges that our forefathers were spared, and which Jews living in more closed communities seldom encounter. One of the most frequent of these is how to recite Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals, when one leaves the religious community and goes out into the world. It can be a problem to find the appropriate moment to say this rather lengthy blessing without raising eyebrows or causing impatience among your companions. It’s a common dilemma when one eats with fellow-Jews who do not observe the mitzvah, and when one eats with people of other religions, such as those whose custom is to thank the Lord prior to the meal but not afterward. It is also a problem when one eats with people who do not believe there is anyone to give thanks to. In such situations, I can only agree with the king of Kuzar who asks his Jewish interlocutor if his faith’s system of blessings is not more trouble than they are worth. Is the mitzvah trying to tell us to simply avoid such multicultural encounters? Is that the best way to observe it?
It is polite to say thank you, but if that is all Birkat HaMazonis about, why does it have to be so long? Why isn’t it enough to express gratitude in one’s heart? Furthermore, set blessings, like set prayers, easily become reflexive rote recitations. On a day-to-day basis, even if one wants to keep it fully, Birkat HaMazonis not an easy task—that is, it is so simple both to say its words and mean what it means. Blessings, like prayers, are meant to be “the Temple service of the heart,” and as such are supposed to demand thought and introspection. But when your head is full of other thoughts it easily becomes mechanical.
The Sages base the precept of saying grace after meals on Deuteronomy 8:10, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” The verse appears in a passage in which Moses speaks of the importance of observing all the mitzvot after the Children of Israel enter the Land of Israel. He stresses that the bounty they will enjoy in the Promised Land comes from God and not from their own efforts or power. In verse two of the same chapter, just a few lines before, Moses tells his audience that all the commandments share a common purpose: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep His commandments or not.” One end all the commandments are meant to achieve is to ensure that the Israelites remember their journey in the desert.
It’s surprising, however, that the forty years of wandering in the wilderness are described here as a test. That seems odd, given the fact that at the beginning of his speech, in Chapter One of Deuteronomy (verses 34–36), Moses reminds his listeners about the sin of the spies: “When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers—none except Caleb son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him and his descendants will I give the land on which he set foot, because he remained loyal to the Lord.”
So were the forty years in the wilderness punishment meted out after the spies slandered the land, or were the decades of wandering something God planned in advance, as a test to see if his people would keep his commandments?
Nachmanides stresses the element of the test. He writes that the essence of the test was that in the desert the Israelites had nothing. They did not engage in agriculture and could not produce their own bread. They were entirely at the mercy of heaven for the manna that they ate and for the clothes that they war. So they had to keep the commandments because they knew that if they did not, they would starve and go naked.
The strange thing is that life in the Land of Israel is portrayed in just this way in these same verses (8:14–17). It is true that, once settled in the Promised Land, they will have to cultivate their fields to produce their food, but they are promised that if they keep God’s commandments, they will live in plenty and in joy. The danger is the very same danger they faced in the desert—that they might come to think that everything comes to them naturally: “Beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end—and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’”
If that is the case, then the Promised Land would seem to be just as severe a test as the trek through the desolate wilderness. Perhaps this is the solution to the apparent paradox of the wandering being both a punishment and a trial. Recall that what caused the spies to sin was, in fact, the abundance they encountered when they traveled the land of Canaan. As Moses tells the story (Deut. 1:25), “They took some of the fruit of the land with them and brought it down to us. And they gave us this report: ‘It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving to us.’” Notice that in Moses’s retelling of the story, the spies do not tell the Israelites, at least not directly, about the giants and heroes that inhabit the land. In this version, it sounds as if the Israelites are frightened not by the people they will have to fight in Canaan but rather by the plenty that the land offers. The punishment of the wandering is, then, the punishment for failing a test—the failure of the Children of Israel is not only their refusal to enter the land, but also their refusal to thank God for giving them a good land. Here, in Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the generation that will enter the land, and warns them of the sin that awaits them there.
Now the picture is clear. In the end, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you” is not just an act of gratitude. The command to thank god for the goodness of the land is a gift of God’s munificence and is not a product of our own strength and power is itself a test. If so, then one performs this commandment best when it presents itself as a challenge rather than when it is part of a routine. The entry into the land is not an entry into a place where the Jewish people can rest on their laurels. It is a new test. We are not meant to become accustomed to it or to take it for granted. And in fact, it is when we leave the land, or our circle of religious Jews, that we encounter this challenge in its fullest sense.