Ekev: Why we bless Israel for California food we eat


Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Isaiah 49:14-15:3

We can visualize the world as a great feast. All of us, every creature of every variety, has access to what we need for food, no matter how varied our needs. Each of us serves as the food for other creatures, in a huge, interconnected, self-replicating, network. Anyone with a religious sensibility might feel gratitude for our place in this swirl and want to bless the One who sustains all. I suppose almost any imaginable faith community would advocate expressing appreciation for what we eat, developing a ritual expression of thanks.

The Jewish thanksgiving after meals, Birkhat HaMazon, begins in just such generic terms. In the classical text, we open by blessing God, "who sustains the whole world in kindness," who "gives bread to all flesh," who "sustains all." If we need a biblical precedent for this blessing, we can find it in Psalms: "You open your hands and provide enough for all life that wants" (Psalms 145:15). In some traditions, this verse appears as part of the first blessing of the thanksgiving after meals.

The second blessing departs from this universal theme. "We thank you…for having caused our ancestors to inherit a delightful, good and spacious land." One learns to look at the end of a blessing for the most succinct statement of its theme. The second blessing ends "for the land and for the food." Not any land, "the land," Israel.

We give thanks, not for the land on which this particular food happened to grow, but for the land that our ancestors inherited, Israel. Somehow our gratitude on having enough to eat relates to our gratitude for the gift of the lovely land of Israel, so that when a Jew in Afghanistan or Iceland eats a meal, that Jew must thank God for the land of Israel.

Which comes about because of a verse in today's Torah reading.

Let me set the scene: Moses knows that he cannot ever reach the promised land. At best, he can encourage his followers and successors. So, on the far side of the Jordan River, as close as he can ever come, Moses our teacher extols the virtues of the Promised Land where he has never been, to those who have never seen it but will live to inherit it. He describes it as a "good land, with streams of water, springs opening in the valley and mountain, a land of wheat, and barley, and grape vines and fig trees and pomegranate trees, of oil-bearing olives and date honey, and land from which you will eat bread without poverty…" (Deut. 8:7-9). As part of his praise of this land, he visualizes life in the good land, "You will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God, for the good land which he has given you" (Deut 8:10).

Rabbi Yehudah identifies this verse, "You will eat, and be satisfied, and bless to the Lord your God" as the biblical source for the commandment of reciting a thanksgiving blessing after a meal (Brakhot 21a). So the second blessing of the Birkhat HaMazon emulates the biblical verse, and expresses thanks for the Land of Israel.

Still, it seems quirky. I eat some bread in California, made from the abundant wheat of Nebraska, and give thanks to God, first for the bread, and then for the land of Israel; not for California, not for Nebraska. It seems that only Israel deserves the name "home."

Because of some accident, now, I happen to live far away, where I eat the alien corn of Nebraska; but even as I do so, I remember my true destiny, to eat the bread of Israel at home.