During my stay in Jerusalem while in rabbinical school, I remember walking through the Old City around lunchtime and noticing a school group whose students were around ten years old. Their teacher, dressed in religious garb, was singing the Birkat Hamazon (the series of blessings recited after meals). As the man tried to bentsch, his voice became louder and he continued to encourage his students to join in. Meanwhile, his students milled around the plaza, chatted noisily, and some even played handheld video games.
The teacher’s interest in requiring his students to bentsch, to recite Birkat Hamazon, was grounded in religious obligation. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land He has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). The word for praise in the Torah is the Hebrew “u-vei-rach-ta” meaning “and you shall bless.” Incidentally, the word has the same root as barukh, but in a different tense. The parallel word for reciting blessings in Yiddish is bentsch. The word bentsch can refer to the recitation of any blessing. Most commonly though, “bentsch-ing” involves reciting Birkat Hamazon, a long series of blessings required by Jewish tradition after someone has eaten a meal that includes bread. But while the teacher’s interest in bentsch-ing was genuine, his audience seemed reluctant to participate. Such a reaction is commonplace in other locations too, and audiences can seem not only reticent, but also dismissive of the practice. Bentsch-ing is sometimes seen as a delay in the festivities of a wedding or another communal celebration, and because of the length of the ritual (around ten minutes), bentsch-ing can also be relatively unfamiliar and inaccessible.
But there is still incredible beauty to be found in the Birkat Hamazon ritual. Beyond the obligation that originates in Jewish tradition, Birkat Hamazon offers us an opportunity to give thanks. The ritual is divided into four distinct blessings – (1) a blessing for the meal itself, (2) a blessing for the land of Israel, (3) a blessing for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and (4) a blessing offering our thanks for all of the goodness in the world, and an expression of our ultimate hope that we will see our world perfected. While we focus our attention on giving thanks for the food that we eat, the practice of bentsching ensures that we remain mindful of the world around us.
Every morsel connects us to Israel, Jerusalem, to our people, and to our God. For those members of our community who are interested in exploring the ritual of Birkat Hamazon further, our recordings archive has a copy of the full blessings, and we would be happy to burn a CD or E-mail an .mp3. We would also be happy to provide a printed text in Hebrew, English, and phonetics.
But what if the task of reciting the full Birkat Hamazon seems too daunting? As our journeys are often more important than our destinations, trying and demonstrating a conscientious effort to take on a new ritual and practice still has inherent value. Such a journey might include refocusing our sentiment during meals. The traditional prayers are meant to be a bridge and often they are, but sometimes they are a stumbling block. If I’m walking down the trail and I see something wonderful, if I start thinking, “What’s the right prayer for that? It becomes a stumbling block. Where if I just say, “Wow, way to go, God. Nice sunset,” it’s praise and it’s authentic and genuine and it does what it’s supposed to do.” Such a comment is encouraging and reminds us that the meaning behind a ritual can sometimes be as important as the ritual itself.
An aspiration within the context of tradition is to learn the keva, the fixed rituals and practices of our tradition and our community. But another equally important aspiration is that of kavannah – of devotion and intentionality, whereby we build moments into our meals, into our days, for gratitude. Such a giving of thanks is the very core, the essence of Birkat Hamazon. The key is to allow ourselves to begin our journey – perhaps with a blessing before or after a meal, a moment of silent reflection, or a simple, personal expression of thanks.
As human beings, we are blessed with the ability to consciously think about our actions, to engage in reflection, to offer our gratitude. And as Jews, we do not eat merely to survive. Rather, food is seen as sustenance so that we might labor with sacredness. Our goal is to leave our meal strengthened for our crucial task of bringing healing and wholeness to our world. Both our meal, and the opportunities for ritual which surround our meal, fuel us for our ongoing journey through life.