Birkat Hamazon and the Land of Israel-Thoughts on Parshat Eikev
This week’s Torah portion begins: “It shall be as a consequence (eikev) of your listening to these judgments and keeping and performing them, that the Lord your God will keep for you the Covenant and the kindness that he swore to your forefathers.” (Devarim 7:12) Rashi, the classical Biblical commentator, writes on this verse, “If you will listen to the ‘light/little’ mitzvot that a person tramples with his heel (eikev), the Lord will keep etc, He will keep his promise to you.” On this explanation of Rashi, the Kotzker Rebbi, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, poses a question: Is it in fact possible that Jewish people would trample underfoot some of the commandments? Does it not say in Pirkei Avot “be as careful with a light mitzvah as with a heavy one, for you do not know the reward of a mitzvah?” (Ethics of our Fathers2:1) What mitzvah in specific is this referring to?
In answer, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk offers his own novel explanation. He writes that the only commandment that a person literally tramples with his heels in order to fulfill is the commandment of settling the Land of Israel — while walking and working the soil of the Holy Land, one is fulfilling a direct, Divine biblical commandment. However, and most unfortunately, many Jews consider this a light mitzvah which can be ignored. According to Rabbi Menachem Mendel, the above verse is teaching that if a person properly observes the commandment that one fulfills with his heel – i.e. walking upon and settling the soil of the Land of Israel – God will likewise keep His promise, “…the Lord your God will keep for you the Covenant and the kindness.” (Parperaot Latorah, Vol 5, page 63)
This interpretation from Rabbi Menachem Mendel is certainly true in our day and age. But Rashi’s surface level, initial answer leads us to glean an important message as well: the importance of noticing the little things, specifically as they relate to mitzvah observance. Oftentimes in life it is the little, habitual mitzvot which have the grandest lessons to teach us.
A prime example of a commandment which does not receive the contemplation it deserves is the seemingly “little” mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon (the Blessing after the Meal). It is first mentioned in this week’s Torah reading, where the verses state: “For the Lord your God brings you to a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valley and hills; a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey; a land where you will eat bread without scarceness, you will not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you may dig brass. And you will eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you.” (Devarim 8:7-10).
There is a very interesting connection between Birkat Hamazon and the 9th Day of Av, a day of collective and national mourning which we observed a little over a week ago. Every year, the Jewish people commemorate this day as a day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, and the customs observed are similar to those in which an individual would mourn for his closest relatives. The one exception is that on Tisha Bav (9th Day of Av) we do not eat, an otherwise permitted practice during an individual’s mourning period for a family member. Many Rabbinic authorities therefore ask why the 9th Day of Av, which is so closely associated with the custom of fasting, is classified as a day of mourning when that stringency is not at all connected with the concept of Jewish mourning in general? The answer is a logical one: when one fasts, they have no reason to recite Birkat Hamazon. And by virtue of the fact that the natures of Tisha Ba’av and Birkat Hamazon are so polar opposite, it is only fitting that they remain forever apart.
Closer inspection on the nature and meaning of Birkat Hamazon will not only help explain this custom, but will also shed light on the connection between Birkat Hamazon and the Land of Israel. Rav Nachman Kahana, Rabbi of Chazon Yechezkel-The Young Israel of the Old City, offers a penetrating insight into Birkat Hamazon which serves to explain why fasting is a most appropriate mourning practice of the Ninth of Av. From the very first chapter straight through to its conclusion, Birkat Hamazon’s theme and all of its blessings are directed to one address: the Land of Israel. The verses state, “And you will eat and be satisfied, and bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you…Blessed are You God for the land and for our sustenance…Blessed are You God who in His compassion rebuilds Yerushalayim. Amen.” Explains Rav Kahana, our Sages, in their wisdom, designated the Ninth of Av and its “satellite” days of mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem (17th of Tammuz, 3rd of Tishrei, 10th of Tevet) as days when we refrain from eating, so as not to require us to recite Birkat Hamazon – a seemingly “little” mitzvah that permits us in a very real way to draw close to the Temple and the Land of Israel.
To the untrained eye, Birkat Hamazon can certainly fall under the category of a small, habitual mitzvah, one whose significance can easily be missed. Birkat Hamazon, in some cases recited up to three times daily, serves as a constant reminder to Jews the world over that our hearts and minds should always be directed to the Land of Israel. As Rav Yaakov Emden writes in the introduction to his siddur (Sulam Yakkov), “Do not intend to settle down outside of the land of Israel, God forbid. That was our ancestor’s sin, despising the desirable land, which caused us eternal weeping. And this sin has stood against us throughout our bitter exile. Not just one enemy has risen up against us, but peace and tranquility have eluded us in every generation. We have been persecuted; we have toiled but found no rest; we have been forgotten like the dead, all because we have completely forgotten about living in the Land of Israel.” With this small but constant reminder, and through the return of the Jewish nation to the Land of Israel, surely a great redemption will come to our people.
Through the merit of taking to heart and appreciating the “little” mitzvot, may we witness the day that is described in Shir Hamaalot “…when the Lord will return the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers. Then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with glad song.” (Psalm 126,1-2)