Ekev: Why we thank God for providing us with food


Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Isaiah 49:14-51:3

Frequently the Torah makes itself heard on more than one channel simultaneously. If we tune in attentively, we may be able to receive many layers of wisdom at once.

On the face of it, Parashat Ekev is a national message to the people of Israel as they prepare to enter the Land. The Israelites are told to be careful not to forget God as they leave the wilderness behind, sure to prosper in the Land. They are warned to maintain their faithfulness to God, lest blessings turn to curses and abundance to suffering. As such, these exhortations are part of a teaching given to a particular group of our ancestors at a particular moment in history. And then, of course, they speak to every one of us as well.

"When you eat and are satisfied, give thanks to God…Take care lest you forget God and fail to keep God's commandments, rules and laws, which I command you this day. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in…and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget God, who freed you from the land of Egypt…and you say to yourselves, `My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.' Remember that it is God who gives you the strength to do great things…"

Sound familiar? Surely these are eternal words, words that could have been written specifically for our own generation, so well do they capture the danger of spiritual collapse in times of relative prosperity. In abundance, as we know all too well, it is so easy to be lulled into self-congratulation, celebrating our own talents and powers. Our own gifts surely contribute to our successes, but they are empty if we are seduced into believing that we have done it all on our own. Eventually, the celebration turns dry, the prosperity empty. For only one source of abundance can truly satisfy.

It is no accident that our Torah portion uses the practice of thanking God for food as its central paradigm for God-awareness. There is nothing more basic, more visceral, more fundamental to our well-being than the food we eat. And it is so easy to forget the source. Without a spirit of blessing, without awareness of God and all those who help bring food to our table, eating is trivial — a necessary punctuation point in the day, or at best, an ephemeral pleasure. But if we can remember, if we can stop and take notice, there is no more powerful stimulus for gratitude and wonder and blessing. Food is life, and our life is utterly dependent on God.

A brief word of thanks before and after meals, as our tradition asks of us, is such a simple and richly satisfying activity. Why is it so hard to put into practice? As the Torah puts it so well, being self-satisfied is so much easier than to pause and acknowledge God's part in our nourishment. Then, too, on an everyday level, like any spiritual practice, to commit to regularly acknowledging God for the gift of food takes awareness and attention: We need to be awake to notice what a wonder eating is. And, for some, there is awkwardness in not knowing what to say, what to do, to create a moment of thanksgiving.

This week, when our parashah brings us the commandment for Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, is as good a time as any to begin. Start in any way, in any language, that will work for you. Go to a Jewish bookstore and find any version of Birkat Hamazon that seems useful. Or make it simple. Experiment with stopping for a brief moment of thanks and say just the first blessing of birkat hamazon, Baruch ata HaShem hazan et hakol. ("Holy One of Blessing, You nourish everyone").

Or simpler still, sit quietly for a moment after eating and say just "Baruch HaShem" — "Thank God."

Reciting blessings is like one of those self-filling pots of gold in many folk tales: The more you dip into the pot, the more treasure is generated. To thank God for the basics of life brings many more blessings. May we be awake and thankful when the blessings come.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.