“Satiated” Parashat Naso 5774

Every morning[1] during the repetition of the Amidah, the Kohanim perform “Birkat Kohanim” – the “Priestly Blessing”, a set of three blessings that cover pretty much anything anybody could ever want or need [Bemidbar 6:24-26]: “May Hashem bless you and watch over you.May Hashem cause His face to shine to you and favour you. May Hashem raise His face toward you and grant you peace.”

Our Sages find the third blessing troubling. The Talmud in Tractate Berachot[2] [20b] brings a story: The heavenly angels interpret the third blessing as Hashem promising to “let Am Yisrael off the hook” even if they deserve to be punished. The angels protest that this blessing contradicts a verse in Devarim [10:17]: “Hashem, your God… the great mighty and awesome God, Who will show no favour, nor will He take a bribe.” This clearly seems to indicate that Hashem will punish those who deserve to be punished, full stop[3]. Indeed, the Talmud in Tractate Sotah [20a] rules that a good deed will not “extinguish” a bad deed and a bad deed will not “extinguish” a good deed. Hashem does not take an integral of all of our actions and give us the sum total of our reward or punishment. Rather, we are rewarded for every good deed that we perform just as we are punished for every bad deed that we perform.

Hashem responds to the angels’ protest, admitting that while Am Yisrael do indeed receive special treatment, it is well deserved: “I commanded them [Devarim 8:10] ‘You shall eat, you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless Hashem’”, and they are scrupulous even if they eat only the size of an olive or an egg.” Whenever a person breaks bread he must recite the Birkat HaMazon – Grace over Meals. How much bread must one eat in order to be required to say Birkat HaMazon? According to the simple meaning of the Torah, the requirement is “satiation”. If a person eats enough so that he is no longer hungry, he must recite Birkat HaMazon. How much must a person eat so that he is “satiated”? According to Rabbi Meir, a person is not satiated until he eats a piece of bread the size of an olive[4]. According to Rabbi Yehuda, a person must eat a piece of bread the size of an egg to feel full. Using the measurements of Rav Chaim Naeh, an “olive” is about 28 cubic centimeters and an “egg” is about 56 cubic centimeters. Clearly no-one is going to eat a piece of bread the size of an olive and say “Wow. I’ve certainly eaten enough!” Because Am Yisrael are scrupulous with this particular mitzvah, reciting Birkat HaMazon even when we are not technically required to do so, Hashem rewards us by “letting us off the hook” for some of our misdeeds.

This is indeed a most problematic explanation. First, it does not answer the question at hand. Hashem states that He will not show favour and will not take bribes. But isn’t being impressed by the performance of a mitzvah essentially the same thing as a bribe? Man cannot wave a 50 dollar bill in front of Hashem and say “Let’s forget about that cheeseburger”, but being pedantic with Birkat HaMazon might help. Second, assuming that Hashem can be bribed by the meticulous performance of a mitzvah, why is this mitzvah singled out? How about wearing tzitzit all day even though there is no reason to do so? How about the laws of family purity where today’s woman is forbidden to her husband about twice as often as required by the Torah? Nearly every Torah-mandated mitzvah has Rabbinical stringencies. What is so special about Birkat HaMazon?

While both of these questions have been asked and answered over the years[5], I’d like to try to address them simultaneously. The verse in Parables [27:19] teaches “As in water, face answers to face, so is the heart of a man to a man”. A person looking into a pool of still water sees his own reflection. When he smiles, his reflection smiles back at him. When he frowns, his reflection does the same. According to the Metzudat David, the verse is teaching us that this reflective relationship between man and himself is replicated between man and his fellow man. A person will treat another person more or less the same way he is treated, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously. You set the tone and he will follow.

Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, writing in the Tanya, explains that this verse has a far deeper meaning. The “friend” in question is not your buddy from down the street, but, rather, Hashem. Our relationship with Hashem goes far beyond being held accountable for our actions. This relationship is bi-directional and self-strengthening. Let me explain. What has Hashem done for us lately? Well, for the first time in two-thousand years we have a Jewish Homeland. We have won war after war against armies considerably larger than ours. We have increased our population by a factor of ten. In the last twenty years we have absorbed one million Jews from the former USSR. We have the highest fertility rate of any country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). We have a booming economy. We have more high-tech start-ups and a larger venture capital industry per capita than any other country in the world. And all of this happened only seventy years after we lost a full third of our people in the Holocaust. If we want to be intellectually honest, it is difficult to live in Israel in this day and age and to deny that we are blessed. It is a reasonable request that we recognize and acknowledge these blessings. Once this overt display of heavenly affection has been internalized, then we will, as a result, be drawn nearer to Hashem, “as in water, face answers to face”. This closeness will encourage Hashem to shower us with even more blessings, creating a feedback loop that continually strengthens the bonds between Hashem and Am Yisrael.

A few weeks ago in Parashat Bechukotai we read of the blessings that Am Yisrael will merit if we keep Hashem’s Torah. One of them is [Vayikra 26:5] “You will be satiated with your food”. What does this mean? Does it mean that we will never lack for food? That we will eat out at fancy restaurants? Rashi explains that this means that a person will eat a small amount, but he will still feel full. When does a person feel full? When does he push his plate away and say “Thank you. I’ve had enough”? Some people never reach this stage. Now replace the word “food” with the word “money”. How many people say “I have enough money, thank you. Instead of finishing this PowerPoint presentation for next Monday’s meeting I’m going home to throw a ball around with my kids”? These people will never allow themselves the experience of being blessed.

Now we can return to the Priestly Blessings. The third blessing culminates with a word that we have overlooked. “May Hashem cause His face to shine to you(elecha)” Hashem will shower with you with goodness, but it is up to you to acknowledge that you have been blessed. You may decide to attribute your winnings to luck or to pure chance. You may even decide to deny that you have won[6]. But if you are wise enough to accept your blessings for what they are, you will be drawn closer to Hashem, and He, in turn, will be drawn closer to you. When you have eaten only an olive or an egg’s worth of food and you still thank Hashem for giving you more than you need, you have given Hashem all He needs to keep the blessings coming.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774


[1] This holds only in Israel. In the Diaspora, the Priestly blessing is relegated to the holidays.

[2] The Talmud in Tractate Rosh HaShanah [20b] asks the same question and offers an answer that differentiates between actions bein Adam la’Makom – between man and Hashem – and actions bein adam la’chaveiro – between man and his fellow man. We’ll leave that one for another shiur.

[3] It should be noted that the comparison made by the angels is not between “showing favour” and “not showing favour”. The Talmudic angels speak Hebrew, and not English, and are comparing the Hebrew “Yisa Hashem panav elecha” – “May Hashem cause His face to shine to you” – and “Asher lo yisa panim” – “Who will show no favour”.

[4] These measurements are two to three times larger than today’s olives and eggs.

[5]See the Ein Yaakov, particularly the commentary of the Nimukei Ha’Griv and the Etz Yossef.

[6]What will we do with all of those Palestinians? It’s a demographic nightmare!