“And you shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall bless HaShem your G-d for the good land which He gave to you.” [Deuteronomy 8:10]
This is not merely a prediction, but a Commandment. We must bless G-d after a meal, and acknowledge all that G-d has done for us.
The specified time for this blessing is striking. Don’t we feel most thankful before the meal? Shouldn’t we say the blessing when we’re hungry? We say most blessings before rather than after — including the blessing on learning Torah. That is a Torah Commandment as well, but a blessing to say before we begin rather than after we finish.
This anomoly reflects the Torah’s profound understanding of human nature. Yes, it is easier to thank G-d before the meal, and that is exactly the point.
The Ohr Gedalyahu, Rabbi Gedalyah Schorr zt”l, tells us that the holy Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, says that the Torah frequently relates the positive and the negative. Our reading, he says, is one example of this concept. The Torah goes on to warn us that after we are sated, we can make a tragic mistake.
“Guard yourselves lest you forget HaShem your G-d… lest you eat and be satisfied, and build good houses and dwell therein… and you instill pride in your hearts and forget HaShem your G-d who took you out from Egypt, from the house of slavery… and you say in your hearts, ‘my strength and the might of my hand made me all of this great wealth!'” [8:11-17] Say a blessing recognizing that it all comes from G-d, to avoid the false claim that your own abilities brought you wealth.
The story is told of a woman late for a business appointment. Caught in traffic, she begins to pray. “G-d, help me get there, and I’ll light candles every Shabbat!” And at that moment the police open a lane around the accident and she gets through. She hits a long line at a toll. “G-d, help me get there, and I’ll be more honest in my business!” A new lane opens, and she slides through. With three minutes to go, there’s no parking space to be found. “G-d, help me get there, and I’ll even stop gossiping!” And at that moment, someone exits a nearby store, and pulls out from the space directly opposite the building entrance.
With moments to spare, she gets to the office. “It’s ok, G-d. I worked it out myself.”
This is why the Torah calls upon us to remember G-d specifically when His blessings have reached us, so that we not look upon the areas where we have been most fortunate and claim, “I did it myself.”
When it comes to learning Torah, the process is reversed. As the famous Israeli columnist Amnon Denker once commented, “the appetite comes with the eating.” The more Torah one learns, the more one wishes to learn. So it is before learning that one least appreciates the tremendous blessing G-d bestowed upon us by giving us His Torah.
We have just observed the mournful 9th of Av, the day both Temples were destroyed. The Talmud (Nedarim 81a) says that one reason for the destruction of the First Temple, drawn from the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), is that scholars “did not bless upon the Torah before learning it.”
Rabbeinu Yonah explains how such an apparently trivial matter could cause the destruction of G-d’s House and the exile of the Jewish people. He says that people would learn Torah, but not because it was G-d’s gift to us. It was merely an intellectual pursuit, a curiosity, no more important than any other endeavor.
We need to recognize both the material and spiritual wealth that G-d has bestowed upon us. We must bless G-d, and recognize all our wealth, at precisely the moments when we are most likely to fail — after seeing material blessing, and before dwelling in the spiritual.
One final note of interest. If the two are parallel, then why did our Sages institute an additional blessing before eating, but not one after learning? The answer is simple: we’re never finished learning!
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Text Copyright © 2002 Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.