The secret of the blessings before and after eating, the positive purpose that hunger serves, and the special significance of the Land of Life
One of the most prominent verses in the Torah portion of Eikev is, “You will eat and be satiated and you shall bless Havayah, your God for the good land that He has given you.” This verse is not only a command to make a blessing after eating. From it, we learn the injunction to make all blessings, before and after eating.
Preceding the above-mentioned verse in the Torah is a description of God’s providence over us in the wilderness: “And He afflicted you and He starved you and He fed you the manna … in order to inform you that not upon bread alone shall man live but by all that which exudes from God’s mouth shall a man live.” The Arizal explains that “that which exudes from God’s mouth” refers to the inner vitality of the food, the holy spark that is hidden within it. The bread that we eat is a natural product of the earth that is achieved after much toil. This makes it difficult to discern the Divine spark that vitalizes it. In contrast, the manna that the Children of Israel ate in the desert is the ultimate miracle food, “Bread from Heaven,” in which “that which exudes from God’s mouth” is immediately apparent. Manna comes to teach us that every food is merely a disguise for God’s word that is hidden in it. It is this spark of Divinity that truly sustains us.
The Purpose of Hunger
The verse describing eating the manna pinpoints the importance of the hunger pangs that precede eating, “And He afflicted you and He starved you and He fed you the manna.” Why did God create us with a sense of hunger?
The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that physical hunger is a sign that the spark of holiness within the food is “calling” him to eat it. So, if you are hungry, don’t feel so self-righteous that you continue fasting – eat! Even the Rebbe’s father commanded him to stop his habit of fasting until Minchah (the afternoon prayer) every day. In general, Chassidut in our generation does not condone serving God through fasting and self-affliction. We need to eat in order to be healthy.
Although we should not starve ourselves, neither should we eat without inhibition until our stomach is full. Giving into our base desire to overeat obscures our spiritual sensitivity. “The righteous individual eats until his soul is satisfied.” Maimonides rules that we should only eat when we feel hungry, and we should desist from eating when the stomach is no more than two-thirds full.
The sense of hunger before eating nurtures positive lowliness. Hunger reminds me that I am a mere mortal, who every so often requires sustenance in order to function. I am entirely dependent on God’s benevolence. This existential dependency puts us in our place with reference to God. Lowliness is the most fitting foundation upon which to construct our self-image, as we pray every day, “My soul shall be as dust before all.” The deeper we dig the foundation, the higher our building can be built. The sense of hunger leads us to humbly turn to God for sustenance.
Blessing before Food
Before we can taste the food that He sends us, we are required to bless God. The natural reason for making blessings is expressing gratitude to God for His sustenance. In addition, Kabbalah and Chassidut teach that the blessing exposes a more profound level of spirituality in our food.
The blessing formula established by the sages is, “Blessed are You Havayah, our God, King of the universe…” (בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה הוי’ אֱ־לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם). This opening phrase is followed by the relevant conclusion, depending on the type of food that will be eaten. For example, the blessing made before eating vegetables/fruits concludes with the phrase, “…Who has created the fruit of the earth/tree,” etc.
The first word of the blessing, “Blessed” (בָּרוּךְ) refers to the Source of blessing. While articulating this word, we are conscious of the hunger that necessitates the blessing. Linguistically, “Blessing” (בְּרָכָה) is conjugant to “knee” (בֶּרֶךְ). The knee can be bent, directing us to humbly lower ourselves in submission to God, preparing to receive His gift. We recite the blessing as if to say, “Here I stand before You, empty, lacking and helpless without Your sustenance.” In a similar “bending” movement, blessing relates to drawing down abundance from Above. In reciprocation, as it were, God bends Himself to provide our needs.
But, reciting the appropriate blessing before eating also affects the food that we eat. It extricates the Divine spark and reveals the word of God that is concealed in the food. Without making the blessing, the food remains subjugated to its superficial wrappings. Consuming it in this state automatically pulls the diner down to the materialistic level, smothering him in the crude animalistic aspect of his soul. In contrast, one who blesses God before and after eating, peels away the outer husk to expose the Divine spark of vitality that lies in the food. Making a blessing thus serves a three-fold purpose: 1. The individual expresses his lowliness and dependence on God, 2. The blessing opens the channel for abundance to descend to us, 3. The spark of Divinity is revealed and the food is elevated to a higher level of spirituality.
The root of the Divine spark that is buried in our food comes from a spiritual source that is even higher than the soul; the word of God. Once this spark is revealed, ingesting the food nourishes the inner essence of the soul together with the physical body. After making the blessing, we can now partake of our meal.
The Three Stage Process of Eating
Approaching eating in this way relates to the three-stage model of serving God taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov: submission, separation and sweetening.
Submission: Hunger – before eating, the individual is in a state of submission. Hunger gives him a sense of positive lowliness.
Separation: Blessing – reciting the blessing before eating achieves the stage of separation. The blessing separates the crude husk of the food to expose the Divine spark, “that which exudes from God’s mouth.”
Sweetening: Finally, while we eat, we reach the stage of sweetening. God’s word that vitalizes the food is ingested via the individual’s mouth, and absorbed into his body, revitalizing him. The food is transformed from the lower levels of mundane reality – inanimate, plant or animal – to the level of man. In this way, when he enacts good deeds with the energy he receives from the food, the spiritual spark is elevated back to its source.
Blessing after Satisfying Hunger in the Land of Israel
Careful scrutiny of the verse that requires us to make blessings reveals that the principal blessing is the blessing after the meal, “And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied [and then] you shall bless… the good land.” Is this a fourth level that follows sweetening?!
The blessing after meals is particularly related to the Land of Israel. As the verse explicitly requires, in this blessing we mention numerous praises of the “good land.” Like the first stage of submission, does the blessing after meals also relate to our sense of feeling like the dust of the earth? If so, how can we feel lowly while we are no longer hungry? Why should we need this blessing once we have completely extracted the Divine from the mundane?
The Ba’al Shem Tov describes the process of submission, separation and sweetening with reference to a verse in Genesis that also relates to the Land of Israel. God commands Abraham, the first Jew, “Go for yourself from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s home to the land that I will show you.” The Ba’al Shem Tov expounds, “From your land” – subdue the lowly earthly tendencies; “from your birthplace” – distinguish between the evil tendencies that you inherited from Terach, your father and the special quality that you have been granted; and “from your father’s home” – sweeten God’s wrath (חֲרוֹן אַף) that is alluded to in the name “Charan” (חָרָן). Following this interpretation, the Ba’al Shem Tov states, “And after sweetening, then you can achieve the aspect of ‘The land that I will show you.'” He concludes cryptically with the injunction, “And understand this.”
Abraham’s progression “from your land” begins with subduing earthly tendencies. His lowliness reaches the stage at which he states, “I am but dust and ashes.” But, once he has completed all three stages, God “shows” him the Holy Land. This land alludes to a much higher degree of selflessness. No longer is this merely a sense of emptiness and submission to God’s benevolence. It is the power to retain our closeness to God, even while satiated. This type of selfless devotion can only be perfected in the land of God’s unique providence, where we have first-hand experience that all the abundance that we receive comes directly from Him.
The blessing before eating expresses the initial sense of lowliness that we feel while in exile. You are “dying of hunger” but without permission you have no right to eat. You must first pay homage to God by making the blessing. But, the goal is to reach the Land of Life, “To eat of its fruit and to be satiated with its goodness.” In the Land of Israel, after integrating the Divine sparks, we can remain aware of them. Even while feeling satiated, we retain our sense of nullification to God and thank Him for all His kindnesses in the recognition that “everything is from You.” This is the secret of the “Blessed” that we say in the Grace after Meals, alluding to a second bending of the knees after eating, “And you shall bless Havayah, your God for the good land that He has given you.” This blessing in particular is the one that is required by the Torah.
Later in this Torah portion we read the verse, “Lest you eat and are satiated… and your heart becomes elevated and you forget Havayah, your God… and you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand did all this valor for me.'” The blessing after meals restores the memory that is unique to the Land of Israel, “And you shall remember Havayah your God, that He is the one who gives you the strength to do valor.” In lowliness and selflessness we intensify our vitality and integrate the abundance of life that God bestows upon us in the Land of Life. Then our mouths fill with blessings and thanksgiving for His great benevolence.