“For Our Use by God’s Decree”

I think it’s safe to say, as we progress through the book of Deuteronomy, that Moses has a lot to say.  Usually when there’s a long passage in a book, fiction or non-fiction, some of us might find ourselves speed reading, or skimming through the section, thinking “how relevant could this diatribe be to the rest of the story? Do I really need every word?”  It’s a natural thing to do when words seem verbose, dense, or overly complicated, moving from subject to subject.  Unfortunately, despite the length and density of the book of Deuteronomy, we can’t speed read–we can’t skim–or else we’ll miss something really important.

For example, about a chapter into our parsha this week, Eikev, we read the following lines:

Remember the long way that Adonai your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep God’s commandments or not.

God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that Adonai decrees.”  (Deut 8:2-3)

We are reminded here that when the Israelites were hungry in the wilderness, it was all part of God’s plan, to teach them a lesson, to test their true feelings.  What happens when an Israelite gets hangry?  Does he or she still have faith? Because the idea of God “testing” us is one that is complicated, and that I myself am not wholly comfortable with, let’s put that aside for today and instead focus on the other important lesson buried here: God teaches that we do not live on bread alone, but that we live based upon God’s decrees.  What does this mean?

At the end of this service, we will gather together with a plate of challah, and together we will bless that challah.  Rather, we will bless God’s creation of the challah.  The blessing, “Blessed be Adonai sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the Earth,” is one many of us are familiar with.  Remember what Moses said in Deuteronomy? “Man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that Adonai decrees.”  God’s decrees, the commandments that come from God, are what we humans survive upon.   Think back to Genesis, to our creation story.  How are things created?  God speaks them into being, “Let there be light.” God commands the creation of trees, and grass, and water, and land.  It is God’s decree that the sun shines by day and the moon by night; it is God’s decree that determines the seasons, the harvest, the droughts.  It was God, then, who provided us with the challah tonight, not because God baked it, but because God caused ground to be fertile, the flour to be able to be made, the eggs created, the honey or sesame seeds, all are on this earth for our use by God’s decree.

Ok, so that’s good to know. According to our Torah, our challah is here because of God, but why does it matter? It matters because most of us believe that when we are saying a blessing over something, like challah, or wine, or fruit, that we are thanking God for these things.  But we are not.  We are asking permission for its use.  When we say a bracha, a blessing over food or drink, we are asking God permission to eat it or drink it, because it came to being from God’s decree.  In the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva once said “‘it is forbidden to get enjoyment from this world without saying a bracha first”[1]  Brachot, or blessings, remind us that God is the sovereign over all the world, and we bless that sovereign who has allowed food and drink to come to be, and we humbly ask if we can enjoy it.  Whether we say hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz, borei pri hagafen, or borei pri ha-etz, we remind ourselves that we live and die by God’s decrees.

So when do we thank God with food?  That comes later.  We have a very long and detailed way to thank God for food, called Birchat Hamazon (also known as benching).  At the end of the meal, we are thankful.  We hear words such as, “Chaveri n’vareich!  Y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach mei-atah v’ad olam, birshut hachevrah, n’vareich eloheinu sh-alchalnu mishelo uv’tuvo chayinu!”

“Friends let us pray.  Praised be the name of God now and forever.  Praised be our God, of whose abundance we have eaten, and by whose goodness we live.”

Later in the Birkat Hamazon, we call God “the Source of bread for all who live; for Your love is everlasting. In Your great goodness we need never lack for food; You provide food enough for all. We praise You, O God, Source of food for all who live.”

This is when we are thankful to our Creator for the food we enjoy. It is also a departure from what we see in many faiths, where grace is said before eating. So how did what is commonly called “grace after meals” come to be?  As it happens, it is explained just a few short verses later:

For Adonai your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.   When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which God has given you.  (Deut 8:7-10)

Moses tell us that when we have eaten our fill, that is when we thank God for the food, for the land, for all that God decreed to create our feast.

So, I know that Reform Jews typically do not say a bracha before every meal, or every time we snack, nor do we say Birkat Hamazon after we eat every meal.  But there is no reason why we shouldn’t. In those moments when we choose to do so, whether out of tradition, as a connection to our ancestors, or to feel closer to God, our parsha this week is a reminder of why we say brachas. So tonight, when we do kiddish and motzi, when we gather to say those blessings we’ve said so many thousands of times, we should know where these rituals were born.  They come from Deuteronomy, from Moses explaining to the Israelites how to live, how to properly understand the gifts in front of them, how to ask permission to partake of them, and how to be thankful for them.

Now, thousands of years later, (think about that… thousands) we continue to say these words, and to adapt them to our own beliefs and traditions.

As we end this discussion, another bracha comes to mind:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, Sheh’ahkol neeh’yeh, beed’varo.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, through Whose word everything came to be.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Talmud Bavli Berachot 35a

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