Torah For The Times    

Parshat Eikev
Torah Reading:  Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 - 11:25)
Haftorah: Isaiah 49:14 - 51:3 

Shabbat Candle Lighting: 7:59 PM 
Shabbat ends: 9:04 PM   

The Non-Blessing Blessing

Serving G‑d with Food

Judaism is all-encompassing. The Torah provides us with guidance in all arenas of life. In that sense, Judaism is not a conventional religion, at least in the ordinary sense of the word, because it does not compartmentalize between the sacred and the profane. In Judaism, there is no qualitative difference between deep meditative prayer and eating a snack. Both activities are addressed by the Torah.  The same Torah that commands us to reflect on and know G‑d, particularly at the time of prayer, also tells us to eat our food in a Torah-designated fashion. Our connection to G‑d is strengthened no less by eating in the Torah way as it is by heartfelt prayer on Yom Kippur.

In addition to the dietary laws of Kashrus, the Torah—and the rabbinic laws that are extensions of the Torah— commands us to not eat even a crumb without first blessing G‑d. In addition, when finished with eating a meal that consisted of one or more ounces of bread, we are commanded to recite the Birchas Hamazon, as mentioned in this week’s parsha: “And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless G‑d your G‑d.”

The Talmud extends and generalizes this requirement for a blessing over a meal of bread to consuming any food or beverage. If one eats an olive-sized piece of cake, for example, he or she must recite a special blessing after consuming the cake. This blessing is referred to as Al Hamichya.  Another blessing is recited after drinking wine or eating the five fruits associated with the Land of Israel (grapes, dates, figs, olives and pomegranates).   All other foods (fish, meat, eggs, etc.) and beverages (including water, when drunk to quench thirst) require a generic blessing, calledBorei Nefashos:

“Blessed are you, G-D, our G‑d, King of the Universe, Creator of numerous living things and what they lack, for all that He has created in order to sustain the life of every being. Blessed is [He Who] is the life of the worlds.”

As we see, this generic blessing does not specify the type of food for which one is thanking G‑d. It only refers to two general needs for which G‑d provides: The things that we lack and the life-enhancing things that provide us with pleasure. As we shall see this lack of specificity plays a significant role in understanding the uniqueness of this blessing.

A Unique Blessing

The Talmud (Berachos 37a) makes a startling statement with respect to the Borei Nefashos.  According to one view, one who eats rice does not recite the more detailed blessing of Al Hamichya but rather the generic Borei Nefashos. However, the way this latter blessing is characterized by the Talmud is rather puzzling. It is referred to as “v’lo clum-nothing!” In other words, as Rashi explains, relative to the more formal and lengthy blessing one recites after eating foods made from other grains (wheat, barley, oats, rye and spelt), the generic blessing of Borei Nefashos is regarded as “nothing.”

The rather enigmatic “putting down” of this blessing is addressed by the Rashba (the foremost 14th Century Jewish sage and leader) in his Responsa literature. He explains that this blessing is referred to as “nothing” due to its lack of specificity. One does not find any mention of the particular food that one has just consumed in this blessing. The generic nature of this blessing is in stark contrast to the detailed and individualized nature of the Al Hamichyablessing.

However, the Rashba’s explanation also requires clarification. Why should the generic nature of this blessing reduce it to a nothing? And if it is indeed regarded as nothing, why did the Sages even bother to institute such a blessing? Why didn’t they make it more specific?

Two Forms of Gratitude

Our first step toward an answer is to better understand the dynamic of gratitude, the underlying basis for these blessings. As we shall come to see, there are two forms of gratitude and the Borei Nefashos blessing actually reflects the deeper form of gratitude. 

Most people recognize the need to show gratitude to G‑d when they receive significant blessings. However, when the blessings relate to things they deem “nothing” or unimportant, most people fail to express any gratitude.

Moreover, when one clearly recognizes and values the benefit received from G‑d, he or she is quick to express gratitude for that particular item because of how it was enjoyed. When it comes to an item that is so commonplace or insignificant that it can, at least in our own minds, be lumped in with many other things, we often forget to thank G‑d for this item.

It is precisely for this type of often overlooked benefit that our Sages instituted the Borei Nefashos blessing. Even when the benefit seems boring, routine or non-descript, one must still think G‑d for it.

One might reasonably suggest that this form of blessing expresses the purest form of gratitude.  Since all our blessings flow down from G‑d, the “small” blessings are no less G‑dly than the blessings we perceive as “big.”

Yehudah: The Epitome of Gratitude

To elaborate, let us look at the first mention of the word for gratitude in the Torah. It was the word our Matriarch Leah used when she bore her fourth son, Yehudah. When she bore her first child, Leah was grateful to G‑d and expressed it in the name of her child: “Reuvein-Saw my suffering” because, “G‑d saw my suffering, and now my husband will love me.” When she had her second child, she said, “G‑d heard that I was despised,” and she named him Shimon (which means “He heard”).  When her third child was born, she named him Levi (meaning “attachment”), stating: “Now my husband shall attach himself to me.”

Note that these expressions of gratitude to G‑d, as reflected in the names of her three sons, were focused on the benefits she received from G‑d with each child. Note, as well, the specific and personal nature of each of these expressions of gratitude: “G‑d saw my suffering”, “G‑d heard that I was despised”, “My husband will become attached to me.”

When she bore her fourth child, Yehudah, there was a radical change in the way she named him.  All she said was: “This time I will thank G‑d. She therefore named him Yehudah.”  The word Yehudah is derived from the word in Hebrew for gratitude. This means that the gratitude she expressed at this moment (“This time”) was unprecedented. No other person was named “gratitude.” Why the change?

Leah’s maternal and spiritual need for children was already satisfied by her first three children. She got all that she had wanted. Her husband would now love her and attach himself to her. She had her full share of the tribes that were to come from Jacob’s four wives. Now, she stated, I am expressing pure, unadulterated gratitude to G‑d. She did not even mention how she benefitted; it’s not about her.  The only thing that she identifies with is thanking G‑d.

Yehudah, the ancestor of King David and Moshiach, is identified with gratitude in its most pure form. Indeed, the word Yehudah contains in it the word for gratitude as well as the four letters of the Divine name. It represents unadulterated gratitude to G‑d.

Thanking, Conceding, Confessing

The word for gratitude in Hebrew is also a cognate to the words that mean agreeing or conceding. In a dispute where one side stridently argues a point but then recognizes that the other is right and proceeds to admit and concede, that concession is said to be an act of ho’doah. The root is also connected to the idea of confession of one’s sins (viduy). The common denominator in all these three forms of the word:, gratitude, conceding and confessing, is that they require acknowledgement of the “other” and a willingness to contract one’s own subjective existence to allow for the other to prevail. This state is referred to in Chassidic parlance as Bittul, which is generally translated as self-abnegation.

Perhaps, this is the deeper meaning of the Talmudic expression that the generic blessing of Borei Nefashos is “nothing.” This generic blessing calls on the one who recites it to express pure gratitude even though there is no real discernible and demonstrative benefit. This captures the very essence of the blessing. It is a sign of unconditional gratitude and willingness to focus on G‑d even when one’s own benefit is negligible.  The blessing is only about gratitude to G‑d.

The Link To Moshiach

This trait of total self-abnegation—a glimmer of which is expressed through the blessing of Borei Nefashos—is ascribed to King David and Moshiach. The entire Book of Tehillim-Psalms is King David’s magnificent ode to G‑d, expressing praise and gratitude to G‑d. In Tehillim, King David finds a multitude of ways to express his gratitude to G‑d and the people who were G‑d’s agents in doing His good.

Moshiach too will be identified by an extreme humility that expresses itself in an unbounded expression of gratitude to G‑d and others.

To underscore the role of gratitude as an identifying sign of Moshiach, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 94a) relates that G‑d initially wanted to proclaim King Chizkiyahu as Moshiach. When Chizkiyahu failed to sing praise at the miraculous downfall of the Assyrian King Sancherev, G‑d changed His mind.  As a further illustration of the importance of selfless gratitude in the Days to Come, according to the Midrash, the only personal sacrifice that we will offer in the Messianic Age will be the Korban Todah-the Thanksgiving offering.

The lesson we are to derive from the above discussion is that one of the ways to hasten the full revelation of Moshiach and our ultimate Redemption is to engage in gratitude; thanking G‑d for both the discernible miracles, as well as the generic miracles. If Moshiach is indeed synonymous with pure gratitude, then we must look for our own ways to be thankful for all the good.  Our gratitude for both the absolute necessities of life that we enjoy without thinking as well as the extraordinary miracles that we are witness to in recent times, is expressed in the non-blessing blessing ofBorei Nefashos.

Moshiach Matters

“And I will remove wild beasts from the land” (Lev. 26:6). According to the Midrash, this will come to fruition in the Messianic era. Rabbi Judah says that G‑d will remove wild beasts from the world, while Rabbi Shimon maintains that G‑d will neutralize their aggressive instinct, as Isaiah (11:6) prophesies, “the wolf will lie with the lamb.” 
“And I will remove wild beasts from the land” (Lev. 26:6).Rabbi Judah says that G‑d will remove wild beasts from the world, while Rabbi Shimon maintains that G‑d will neutralize their aggressive instinct. In other words, Rabbi Shimon maintains that the word “remove” here (from the Hebrew root sh-v-t, “to put to rest”) means the “destruction” of the current form of the entity, whereas Rabbi Judah understands it to mean the literal destruction of the entity—in both form and substance.

For more info about Moshiach,