Torah for the Times    

Friday, August 10, 2012 - 22 Menachem Av, 5772

Torah Reading: Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25)  
Candle Lighting Time: 7:42 PM
Shabbat ends: 8:44 PM

Eggs and Olives

Thanking Before and After

This week’s parsha is known specifically for the commandment to recite BirKat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals. The Torah expresses this commandment succinctly: “And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied and you will bless G‑d.” The wording of the Torah makes it clear that the obligation to recite this blessing is only if one has been satiated by eating the food. If one were to just nibble or snack, there would be no obligation to recite the Birkas Hamazon.

To be sure, there is a rabbinical obligation to recite a blessing prior to partaking of any amount of food. In the words of the Talmud: “It is forbidden to derive any benefit from this world without first blessing G‑d.” One may not partake of G‑d’s resources without first acknowledging that we are guests sitting at His table, as it were, and partaking of His food. However, the blessing we recite after a meal takes the expression of our gratitude to the next level. We must thank G‑d for providing us with an ample supply of food.

In other words, the blessing before eating is akin to asking permission to partake of His food—in any amount—the blessing after eating is to thank Him for being satiated by the food.

Showing Favoritism

The Talmud, cites the verse: “May G‑d show you His shining countenance.” The Hebrew term employed here suggests that G‑d showers special blessings on the Jewish people and shows them favoritism, which prompts the Talmud’s rhetorical question: “Is it fair for G‑d to show favoritism to the Jewish people?” The Talmud’s answer is: “How can I not show favoritism to them who are strict and recite the grace after meals even if they eat only a kizayis—the size of an olive—or kibeitzah—the size of an egg.”

In other words, while the Torah obligates us to recite the Birkas Hamazon only if we have eaten our fill, the Jewish people act more stringently and go beyond the law. They recite this blessing even if they eat no more than an olive’s worth or an egg’s worth.

The question has been raised, why is it praiseworthy to recite this blessing when the Torah clearly does not obligate it? One may not recite a blessing which contains a mention of G‑d’s name if one is not obligated to do so. It is akin to taking G‑d’s name in vain! Why then is it praiseworthy to recite the Grace after Meals even when eating less than the prescribed amount?

Another question has been advanced. An egg is larger than an olive. If indeed it is praiseworthy to thank G‑d for smaller amounts it should have reversed the order. It should have stated that we are deserving of favoritism because we bless G‑d even when eating the amount of an egg, or even a smaller amount—the size of an olive. Instead it says that we recite the Birkas Hamazon even if we eat an olive’s worth (the smaller amount) and even if we eat the size of an egg (the larger amount)!

Not by Bread Alone

One way of answering both questions is to reflect on the entire function of eating as a way of surviving. What is the ultimate reason we depend on food for life? Why would G‑d create us in a way that forces us to depend on lower forms of life?

According to the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal, we do not really live by eating physical food. We live by eating the food that contains within it Divine “sparks” of energy that nourish the soul. And when the soul is sated, it feels “comfortable” residing within the physical body and we continue to live and thrive physically as well. This, the Arizal explains is what the Biblical phrase, “man does not live by bread alone, but by the word of G‑d does man live.” Man does not live by consuming the physical bread but by the Divine force that gives life to that bread that is contained within the bread.

When we are more spiritually oriented we can more easily access and internalize the spiritual energy that is embedded within the food that we ingest. Once we feel the spiritual energy’s effects on us we no longer feel hungry. We are satisfied.

This then is the praise of the Jewish people and for which they deserve “preferential” treatment. They recite the Grace after Meals even when they eat the small amount equivalent to an olive or an egg. By reciting the blessing—which is usually reserved for one who is satiated—even after eating only the small amount of an olive or an egg it is a sign that even this reduced amount has accomplished its goal of satisfying one’s hunger for the spiritual energy. It is indicative of a heightened spiritual sensitivity that provides for satisfaction with much less eating. In effect, the person who recites the Birkas Hamazon for the small amounts is indeed satisfied and is mandated to recite this blessing.   

However, within this heightened level of spirituality—where less is more—there are two levels: There are those who can extract, digest and absorb the spiritual energy by eating only the small amount of food equivalent to an olive. And then there are others who need the relatively larger size of an egg before they can harness the G‑dly vitality contained within the food.

Hence the Talmud states: Look how special we are! We can feel satisfied even with the minuscule amount of food equivalent to an olive. But even if we are not on that level we still deserve praise because we are satisfied with the amount equivalent to an egg. This “egg Jew,” while not as sophisticated as the “olive Jew”—inasmuch as it take him longer to discover and internalize the G‑dly energy within the food—is  nonetheless deserving of much credit and adulation.

The Crushed Olive and The Hard Boiled Egg

At this point we ought to ponder the difference between the “olive Jew” and the “egg Jew,” and how  they relate to us today.

The olive is seen as the symbol of spiritual light because it is the source of olive oil which is the source of light.  In Chassidic literature, water, wine and olive oil are seen as metaphors for the Torah. Water is the metaphor for the basic teachings of Jewish law that guides our day to day life. Without that knowledge we cannot survive. 

Wine, which has the capacity to “loosen us up” and may cause us to divulge matters that we kept secret, is symbolic of the spiritual and esoteric teachings of Torah. Thus, the Talmud tells us that the word for wine in Hebrew—Yayin—and the word for secret—sod—are both numerically the same. They both add up to the number 70.

If wine represents the inner dimension and secrets of the Torah, what does olive oil represent?

The answer is that olive oil represents the “secrets of the secrets,” the most unknowable aspects of Torah that will only be revealed in the Messianic Era. And just as the olive does not produce the oil with mere squeezing, it requires crushing, so too, we have been told, the future Messianic secrets will come after we have endured the painful and crushing period of exile.

Hence, even if at times we are not as spiritual as we should be, the mere fact that we—as a people—have been so crushed throughout our long exile means that we—whether we recognize it or not—are spiritually sophisticated. And we are indeed deserving of the final Redemption through Moshiach when we will all recite the ultimate and consummate Grace after Meal.

Life has been compared to a banquet and we have had a fill of the “banquet” of exile. We have had our equivalent of the crushed “olive” and are ready to bask in the light of the oil that we have produced by virtue of the way we were crushed in exile.

However, not everyone has undergone the brutal and crushing effects of exile as did the Jews of the Holocaust and of countless other tragedies is our history.

Perhaps they are not as “sophisticated” as the “olive Jews” but nevertheless they still deserve to recite the final blessing after the “banquet” of exile because they are like the egg. The egg, the food we eat on Passover and is therefor associated with liberation, is a unique food for the longer you cook it the harder it gets.

Just by virtue of our long stay in exile—even in the most benign of conditions such as that which we are enjoying today living in a free country where Judaism can thrive and where we enjoy the blessing of prosperity—we have become hardened. As the saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  We have been hardened—in a positive way. We have withstood the centuries and millennia of exile. And contrary to those amongst us who see the current generation of Jews as inferior to the earlier ones, we have been going tough, and that toughness has enabled us to be more spiritually sensitive than many of our forebears.

So whether we are “olive Jews” or just “egg Jews”, we are more than satiated and content (excuse the pun: and “fed up”) with the challenges posed by exile. We are ready for pronouncing the final blessing on the banquet of exile as we enter into the feast of the Messianic Age, imminently!

Moshiach Matters

"He has redeemed my soul with peace..." The Talmud teaches that this verse alludes to the person who occupies himself with the study of Torah, does deeds of kindness and prays with a minyan; through this he redeems the A-mighty (so to speak) and the Jewish people from exile. Chassidut explains that the study of Torah here refers specifically to the mystical parts of Torah, the "peaceful" part of the Torah, for it includes no argument or difference of opinions; and only then is the Redemption with peace. (Hitvaaduyot 5726) 
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