According to Jewish law, which blessing is more important: the Hamotzi, recited over bread before we eat, or the Birkat Hamazon, grace after the meal? Contrary to popular opinion, the winning answer is the Birkat Hamazon. Our talmudic sages instituted a number of short blessings, including Hamotzi, to be uttered before benefiting from specific aspects of creation.
Declining to recite these praises, known as Birchot Nehanin, is considered akin to misappropriating God's treasures. However, the Torah itself ordained the grace after meals. Not only does Parshat Ekev supply us with the sentence upon which the Birkat Hamazon liturgy is based, but it also guides us on how we might live more fully in this material world.
Many legal questions have arisen in response to this key verse: You shall eat and be satiated, and bless God for the good land that has been given to you. Need we only bless God when we are sated? What types and amounts of food must be eaten to mandate recitation of a full Birkat Hamazon? Is it a special mark of piety to bless God even when provisions are meager?
While these queries have been debated for centuries, the Chasidic master Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin offered us a fascinating existential insight. Fullness, he claimed, is not determined by what's on the menu or the size of the portions. Instead, true satisfaction stems from the ability to find blessing in that which we receive.
A popular adage states that you can never be too rich or too thin. The prevalence of eating disorders disproves the second of these claims, while growing evidence gives lie to the first.
But beyond a certain comfort level, studies show that an increase in income does not proportionately raise one's happiness quotient. Yesterday's luxury purchase often becomes "old hat" tomorrow, while the accelerating quest for "more" robs us of time for relationships and an appreciation of that which is.
Foreign as it might seem to most of us, there is even a dark side to excessive wealth. Those with recently made fortunes often experience depression when adjusting to their new circumstances. Those with longstanding holdings face jealousy and control issues when transferring them to their descendants.
And, as our tabloids attest to almost daily, the children of wealth can lack the skills and judgment needed to navigate the realities of life. The Nov. 8 edition of Moneysmart.com reported that several financial firms now employ special "wealth therapists" to help clients deal with the emotional and practical issues that distort family systems and affect individuals.
What Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin was trying to teach is that being satisfied is contingent on the recognition that all we ultimately have comes not through our unaided effort, but as gifts from God. Rather than surrender to resentment or envy, we increase our sense of life's fullness when we look for the blessings in what we have and are able to articulate them with an attitude of gratitude.
As Ekev begins, Moses recounts the trials of the wilderness years to an Israelite generation poised to enter the Promised Land. Strangely, he lists the miraculously provided manna among those tests. Why? So that we might understand that finding fullness in life depends upon the recognition of blessing — not only when facing hardship, but even when we have all we could want.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected]