Grace after meals
This week’s Torah portion instructs Jews to bless G-d after consuming a satiating meal. “You will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless your G-d for the wonderful land that He gave you (1).”
Thus was invented the ritual of “benching” (Yiddish for blessing), or “grace after meals,” recited after every meal of bread, consisting of a number of sections, or blessings. In the first we express gratitude for the resources G-d created in the world to nourish His creatures. The second blessing is a “thank you” for the beautiful land that He gave the Jewish people. In the third, we give thanks and pray for Jerusalem. These three blessings were fashioned to echo the biblical injunction “You will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless your G-d for the wonderful land that He gave you,” linking gratitude for a meal with gratitude for the soil which produced the meal (2).
Yet there is a strange law associated with this ritual. The Talmud states (3) that the second blessing, in which we express our gratefulness for the land, must include a few words about the covenant G-d made with the first Jew, Abraham, that He would give the land of Israel as an eternal inheritance to his descendants, a covenant expressed in the circumcision of every Jewish male baby. What is more, in this blessing we must make mention also of the Torah, the divine constitution for the Jewish
people and humanity, which promises “scores of times” the land of Israel to the Jews.
In other words, the sages are suggesting, it is necessary not only to thank G-d for the beautiful land itself, but we also needed to include the source of our “rights” for this land: the Abrahamic covenant and the Torah. Thus is the standard version of the grace after meals: “We offer thanks to You, Lord our G-d, for having given
us as a heritage to our ancestors a precious, good and spacious land “for your covenant which you have sealed in our flesh, and for Your Torah which You have taught us.”
Benching vs. Hatikvah
Now, the Talmud is so emphatic about the inclusion of these two concepts of the covenant and the Torah that it states (4): “Whoever did not mention the Covenant and the Torah in the blessing for the land (the second blessing in the grace after meals) did not fulfill his obligation.” This person must repeat his grace after meals.
This seems strange. The Bible merely states, “You will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless your G-d for the wonderful land that He gave you.” The Torah simply wants us to express appreciation for the land. Period. Why the absolute necessity to mention the Abrahamic covenant and the Torah? What is wrong with a simple
offering of thanks for a beautiful national homeland?
In fact, the heart-stirring Israeli national anthem, adorning countless Jewish functions over the past 56 years, does just that. It speaks of “the 2,000 year old Jewish yearning to be a free people in its land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” It makes no mention of G-d’s covenant with Abraham or the Torah as the moral grounds for
establishing the modern State of Israel.
Similarly, the signers of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, drawn up in May 1948, made no mention of G-d or Torah in this historic document. After a debate, it was agreed upon to allude to G-d through the ambiguous expression “The Rock of Israel.”
This seems like a rational approach. Why mix religion and statehood? For a democracy to flourish, liberal pluralism must be maintained. Church and state must be separated. Introducing biblical notions into the Zionist endeavor, could only undermine Israel’s success as a liberal democracy.
Torah vs. the UN
Yet the Talmudic rabbis, 1,700 years ago, apparently understood something about Jewish nature and Middle East politics that eluded many of the founders of modern Israel. The Talmudic sages keenly grasped that if the thankfulness of the Jew for the Land of Israel is not based on the covenant G-d crafted with Abraham some 3,700 years ago, and on the Torah, the 3,300-year-old divine blueprint for Jewish existence, we might one day feel repulsed — rather than welcomed — by the land.
If the Jewish people’s connection to the land of Israel stems merely from Theodore Herzl’s Zionist dream to give displaced and exiled Jews a national identity, endorsed by the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the 1947 United Nations’ partition plan, then our loyalty to the land remains fragile and ambiguous. If our rights to Israel are the result of the endorsement of the international community, then at the moment they begin to see us as “occupiers,” stealing territory that belongs to our Arab cousins (in
a war that they thrust upon Israel), we must be compelled to withdraw and give up the land.
If, in the future, the Arabs gain the world’s sympathy for their persistent claim that all of Israel is theirs, some morally sensitive Jews might call on a mass Jewish relocation to New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida and California, where we will not be stealing lands from anybody.
We must confront the painful truth: If the Jews living in Gaza, West Bank and Eastern Jerusalem are occupiers, then the Jews living in Tel-Aviv, Heifa and Rosh Pinah are the same occupiers.
The Arabs say so clearly: All of Palestine belongs to them. The entire “Zionist entity” is one big settlement. That is why there was no peace before the 1967 war, a time of no Jewish settlements and no settlers. Gaza belonged to Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Jordan, and the Golan Heights to Syria. Why did six Arab countries decide to invade and exterminate Israel? Because, in their belief, all of Israel occupies Arab land. According to the Koran, Jews have no right to establish a
self-governed homeland on Islamic soil.
From the Arab perspective, Israel has no leg to stand on. The Middle East, with its 22 Arab counties without a single democracy, is simply the wrong neighborhood for a liberal democracy. According to Arab propaganda, which has become the world’s conventional wisdom, Jews, especially European Jews, are a foreign implant, outsiders who have colonized and occupied native Arab land. All the reasonable arguments in the world and all the UN resolutions combined will not change for them the simple belief that Jews don’t belong in Israel. To them, all Israelis are settlers occupying the land of millions of displaced Arabs. How would Americans feel if three million Vietnamese settled in Texas and decided to create Vietnam in middle of Texas! Because the Europeans were guilt-ridden after the Holocaust and were kind enough to give the Jews a slice of the Middle East, why should the Arabs have to pay the price and suffer?
As a liberal democracy Israel, indeed, faces a dead end. The Arabs, by their sheer numbers and demographics, will eventually outnumber and outvote the Jews. If Israel is truly a liberal democracy, then one-man one vote is the only fair and logical approach. Consequently, both the right and the left in Israel are conceptually stuck, utterly
paralyzed and politically checkmated. In the international arena Israel has lost the political argument.
This is the only explanation for the extraordinary drama that has enfolded in Israel in recent years. The very same people who fought like lions to put the Zionist dream into reality and return the Jewish nation ’”after two millennia of endless blood” to its homeland, have with their bare hands transferred parts of Israel’s heartland to foes who crave to exterminate it. As I write, Ariel Sharon is escalating his efforts to expel 8,000 Jews from Gaza. The same Jews who condemned the 6,000,000 for going to their deaths like “sheep to slaughter,” vowing “never again,” are with their very own hands feeding thousands of Jew-killers by giving them the territories and weapons from which to continue their extermination plans against the people of Israel.
Because for many Jews, our connection to Israel is based on a secular attempt to join the family of nations and become accepted members of the international community. As noble and beautiful as this attempt is, the moment the international community, as a result of tremendous Arab pressure, begins to question our moral position, we melt like wax. We feel that we are guilty of occupation. There is no better way to defeat Jews than by convincing them that they are immoral thieves. It is hard to defeat Jews by the sword; but if you can convince a Jew that he is soul-less, that he has sold his conscious to the devil, you have defeated him.
This, the Arabs have succeeded to do. They convinced us that we were the sharks. From there, the road was paved for Israel’s suicide attempt in the guise of Oslo.
Yet the critical point is missing. The only reason Jews came back from Odessa, Vilna and Warsaw to Israel is because G-d gave it to us, because the creator of the heaven and earth chose to give his Holy Land to the children of Abraham Isaac and Jacob as stated clearly in the Bible. There are three Billion people in the world who believe in the Bible, who live with the Bible and who quote the Bible. Yet we self-respecting Jews are scared to sound “too Jewish.”
Paradoxically, it seems the world is waiting for this. Not only the Christian and Islamic world, who view the Bible as the definition of truth. Even the secular world, seems respect Jews who respect themselves and their faith. The world is waiting for Israel to treat the Land the way Israel should be treated, as G-d’s personal gift to the Jewish people.
That is why the sages said that “whoever did not mention the Covenant and the Torah in the blessing for the land did not fulfill his obligation.” If our sense of gratitude and connection to the land is based on the divine covenant with Abraham and the Torah, it will remain passionate, morally inspired and eternal. If not, our loyalty to our homeland loses its roots, and any powerful can easily displace us, conceptually and physically.
The sun and the moon
The Talmud states (5), “Moses is the face of the sun; Joshua is the face of the moon.” What is the symbolism behind this poetic statement?
One explanation might be this:
Moses represents Torah; Joshua embodies the Land of Israel. Moses gave us the Torah; Joshua gave us Israel.
The light of the moon is beautiful, soothing, and romantic. Moonlight has inspired many an imagination and a soul. Yet the glow of the moon is merely a reflection of the sun. As long as the moon reflects the sun’s glow, it casts upon the earth its own unique romantic luminescence; if the moon is separated from its source of light as is the case in a lunar eclipse — it becomes a large chunk of dark and rocky matter.
The relationship between Moses, the face of Torah, and Joshua, the face of Jewish statehood, is that of the sun and the moon. As long as Israel reflects Torah – its faith, its dreams and its passions — it is hard to find something more beautiful and inspiring. When Israel, however, ceases to see itself as a reflection of Torah, but rather as a secular national homeland for Jews, a member of the United Nations, it loses much of its inner glow and beauty. Its very identity and future is put into question.
1) Deuteronomy 7:10.
2) Thus, the first three blessings are biblically required. In the
city of Yabneh, around 100 CE, the sages added a fourth blessing,
thanking G-d for His kindness during the times of exile following the
Roman destruction of
Jerusalem (Talmud Berachos 48b).
3) Talmud ibid.
4) Talmud ibid. 49a.
5) Bava Basrs 75b.
All contents copyright ¬© 2004 Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson