I was working a few days ago with a friend’s daughter who’s becoming bat mitzvah in a few weeks. I found myself remembering a moment shortly after my own celebration of bat mitzvah.
Faced with the prospect of writing a mountain of thank-you notes. I took up my pretty new stationery and I wrote, “Dear so-and-so, thank you for the gift, love Rachel” over and over and over.
When my mother found out that I hadn’t been personalizing the notes, she made me throw them all out and start again. She insisted that I say what each gift was and why I appreciated it.
And that’s how I learned that one must be specific in a thank-you note. “Thank you for the thing, whatever it was” will not cut it. (Not for my mother, anyway.) Enter this week’s Torah portion, Eikev:
וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־יָה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ
And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless YHVH your God for this good land that God has given you.
From this springs the custom of birkat hamazon, the “grace after meals,” also called bentsching. Our tradition teaches us to offer that prayer after any meal at which bread is consumed in a quantity as large as an olive. Even for a bite-sized gift, we’re meant to say thank You.
The traditional birkat hamazon contains four blessings: for the food, for the land, for the holy city of Jerusalem, and for God’s goodness. Those blessings are adorned with an introductory psalm and a series of blessings that call God The Merciful One, plus additions for Shabbat and festivals. This is how our tradition works: a short text is embroidered with additions, and the additions become canon too.
And while it’s easy to roll our eyes at that process of accretion — this is how we wind up with long prayers: because we get attached to the new additions, but we can’t bear to get rid of the original material! — the process often yields liturgy that I truly love singing. And I do love bentsching (singing the birkat hamazon) when I’m lucky enough to gather a table of people who want to sing it with me.
Besides, one could argue that the impulse comes out of the same place as my mother’s decision to make me rewrite all of my thank-you notes. It’s not enough to just say “Hey, thanks for the thing.” If we’re doing it right, we ought to articulate gratitude for the food, and for the land in which the food arises, and for our holy places, and for the goodness of God that leads to the gift of sustenance in the first place.
Then again, it’s often our custom here to sing abbreviated liturgy. This is true in its most concentrated form when we have contemplative services. But most of the time we opt for fewer words and greater connection with those words, rather than singing the full text of what the most liturgical versions of Judaism might prescribe. Most often when we bless after a meal here, we sing brich rachamana:
בּרִיךְ רָחָמַנָה מָלְכַא דְעָלמַע מָרֵי דְהָאי פִתָא.
You are the source of life for all that is and Your blessing flows through me.
(Aramic translation: Blessed is the Merciful One, Sovereign of all worlds, source of this food.)
You have probably heard me say that that blessing originates in Talmud. You may also have heard me say that it’s the shortest possible grace after meals that one can offer — for instance, if one were being chased by robbers and needed to make the prayer quick. This is a popular teaching, though I can’t actually source it! But it shows awareness, in the tradition, that sometimes we can’t manage full-text.
For me, then, the question becomes: how do we sing the one-liner in such a way that we invest it with the kavvanah (the meaning and the intention) that the long version is designed to help us cultivate? How do we sing the short version without falling into the trap that I fell into as an overeager thirteen-year-old writing “thanks for the thing”?
One answer is to go deep into the words. This short Aramaic sentence tells us four things about God: God is blessed, and merciful, and is malkah, and is the source of our sustenance. I want to explore each of those, but I’m going to save the untranslated one for last.
1) God is blessed. What makes God blessed? We do, with our words of blessing. We declare God to be blessed, and by saying it, we make it so. (If this intrigues you, read Rabbi Marcia Prager’s The Path of Blessing — it’s in our shul library.)
2) God is merciful. The Hebrew word “merciful” is related to the Hebrew word for “womb.” God is the One in Whose Womb all of creation is sustained. When I really think about that metaphor, it blows my mind. The entire universe is drinking from God’s umbilical cord!
3) God is the source. The source of all things; the source of every subatomic particle in the universe; the source of the earth in which our food comes to be, and the hands that raised or harvested or prepared what we eat, and the source of the things we eat that sustain us.
4) And God is malkah. That word can be translated as King, or Queen, or if you prefer gender-neutral, Sovereign. But to our mystics, the root מ/ל/כ connotes Shechinah: the immanent, indwelling, feminine Presence of God — divinity with us, within us, among us.
God is blessed because we invest our hearts and souls in speaking that truth into being. God is mercy made manifest in our lives. God is the source from Whom all blessings flow. And God is that Presence that we feel in our hearts and in our minds, in our souls and in our bones. It’s that Presence — or, if you’ll permit me some rabbinic-style wordplay, those Presents — for which we articulate our thanks.
To be really grateful is to be grateful for the specific, not the general. (That was my mother’s thank-you note lesson all those years ago.) The Aramaic says ‘d’hai pita,’ “for this bread,” not just for bread. I’m grateful for this bread that I took into my body. That makes it personal, because gratitude is personal by definition. If we don’t take our gratitude personally, then it’s not gratitude; it’s just rote words.
Our task is to eat, because ours is not an ascetic tradition. To be satisfied, because that is a healthy response to consumption. (Alexander Massey suggests that we cultivate satisfaction as a good in itself, and pray from there.) And then our task is to bless, and to really feel the awareness and the gratitude and the presence, to take them personally and make them real — no matter what words we use.
Image source: a challah cover bearing the words “you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless,” available at one of my favorite Judaica stores, The Aesthetic Sense. Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.