Graced With Food
By blessing after we eat, we elevate the act of eating by connecting with God, the source of our sustenance, and with our cultural history.
We see then that saying Birkat HaMazon helps to expand our consciousness in two ways: it makes us aware of the source of our sustenance and the chain of transmission that brings our food to our mouths, and it connects us with our history and the spiritual concerns of our ancestors.
The Yiddish term for Birkat HaMazon is to bensch, which means simply, "blessing." In a sense, this reflects the attitude that blessing after meals is "the blessing" par excellence. Just as food is the sustenance of life, this recognition of God providing for all our needs becomes the substance of our spiritual lives.
For many of us, eating can be such a routine, almost unconscious, act. For all of God's creatures eating is one thing we do each and every day. It is an essential, automatic, act. And yet by remembering to give thanks and blessing to God each and every time we consume more then a crumb of food, we elevate the most routine, ordinary act to a chance to connect with God. That, I believe, is really what this commandment is all about: connecting with God.
It is interesting to me that this text does not say "When you eat and are satisfied, bless God..." but "You shall eat and be satisfied and bless God...". It is not conditional. Unless, God forbid, we are in a situation where we have absolutely nothing to eat and are threatened with starvation, eating is a regular part of our lives. For us as Jews, food is central to our consciousness (for better or worse). But rather then let it become mundane, we elevate eating to an act of worship. By bringing blessing to our food, we bring God into our daily lives. And that, ultimately, is the supreme spiritual act.
Our Rabbis taught: Where is the saying of grace intimated in the Torah? In the verse, And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless.... This accounts for the grace after meals. How can we prove that there should be a blessing before food? You have an argument a fortiori: if when one is full, one is to say grace, how much more so should one do so when one is hungry! (Talmud Berachot 48b).
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