Parshat Eikev: The Soul, the Blessing, and the Sandwich
If asked to list spiritual activities, we would all likely procure the same list: praying, singing, meditating, walking in nature, or something else that brings feelings of awe: the state of transcendence when, for a moment of eternity, our spirit floats, our problems dissipate, and everything is good. But are spiritual activities only the ones we experience as such? And what does “spiritual” mean? Who is to say it deserves special attention in our eyes?
Spirituality, if we may, can be understood as tapping into the hidden essence underlying reality, the spirit animating our existence. Just as we contain an essence—our sense of self, the first-person “I”—enlivening our bodies, so, too, we may suppose the same for other people and for other things. One can think of electricity powering an appliance. In and of itself, the appliance is lifeless; it needs its spirit. Kabbalah posits that Hashem is the essence of existence and beyond, that everything is an expression, an emanation, of Him.
In this definition, spiritual activities would be ones that enable one to experience the spirit, the essence, of life: Hashem. Prayer, singing, meditation, nature, and the like often elicit that feeling, whereby one peeks into the light behind the curtain we call life. Thus, in theory, anything can be a spiritual activity. Indeed, if everything is essentially a divine expression, then everything can be a doorway to the Divine. We see as much in Parshat Eikev.
Moshe instructs Bnei Yisrael, “And when you eat and are satiated, you shall bless Hashem your God for the good land that He gave to you” (Devarim 8:10). Rav Yehuda, in Masechet Berakhot 21a, credits this pasuk as the source for the length blessing we recite after eating bread, known as Birkat HaMazon, the Blessing of Sustenance. The pasuk has three steps: eat, satiate, and bless. There is a causal chain linking the three together, beginning with consumption and concluding with blessing.
It’s not unusual for us to recite blessings before and after eating, but it does seem strange. Why if I eat a sandwich must I bless Hashem? The question is relevant for many reasons, not least of which is because sandwich-eating is among life’s great banalities, whereas blessing holds loftier associations. Rabbeinu Bahya notes an additional peculiarity in this pasuk: Why do we bless Hashem at all? This, he says, is the only place in the Torah where Hashem commands us to bless His name.
Blessing is about abundance. When we bless, we seek to add, increase, intensify. To bless Hashem is not to increase Hashem, per se, rather it is to increase Hashem’s presence in our reality, to push back the blinds a bit further so more light can shine through. Likutei Halachot explains that everything has a soul bundled within it, and through blessing, we unravel it into our lives (Orach Chaim, Law of Blessings on Fruit 3:1). When we bless the sandwich, we seek to draw out its “soul,” to encounter its essential expression of Hashem in our lives. That would then make eating a spiritual activity.
The soul, the blessing, and the sandwich. Together, these three words bring new life to the pasuk that, on its surface, merely outlines a commandment to bless Hashem after we eat. The reality instead proves to emphasize that each moment of our life is an encounter with Hashem, an encounter with Essence. The spiritual activity is the activity we choose to make spiritual.