If one plays basketball, he better be aware of the coach’s existence because it will affect the way he conducts himself at practice and at the game-and even off season. He knows that if he gets involved in an activity the coach frowns upon, it might jeopardize his chance of being successful on the team. The same is true of being in a theatrical production, in the military, a student, or any other endeavor in which there is clearly one person who is in charge, if you are not cognizant of that person’s existence, you will not succeed at that endeavor. This obviously relates to G-d because if we ignore or pretend that He doesn’t exist, how can we be successful in life? Remembering that the world has a Creator and living according to that reality has been a challenge for humanity since Adam and Eve and it seems harder than ever in a 21st century, an age when screen time and social media takes the lion’s share of many people’s waking hours. What is the Jewish approach to remain cognizant of the Almighty’s existence? The Torah has no shortage of mitzvot but there’s one in particular that keeps our minds and hearts in the right direction; blessings.
Jews make lots of blessings. There are blessings for wine (borei pri hagofen) and challah (hamotzi lechem min haaretz) on Shabbat. There are seven blessing made at a chuppah, blessings before reading and after reading Torah, and even blessings made when a person begins the mourning process for certain loved ones. These blessings are all rabbinic enactments but there’s one blessing that is undisputedly mandated by the Torah; the blessing after eating a meal with bread [birchat hamazone; (“bentching” as it’s known in in Yiddish-but it’s really Latin)]. This seems peculiar, a blessing is a spiritual thing; what can we learn from the fact that the one blessing assigned by the Torah is on such a physical exploit–eating?
You will eat and you will be satisfied, and you shall bless Hashem, your G-d, for the good Land He gave you.(8:10)
The Rabbis of the Talmud attempted to make a logical deduction that making a blessing before a meal was also mandated by the Torah; here’s the logic. If one is obligated to make a bracha (blessing) when he is already satisfied (i.e. after he ate), then all the more so he should be obligated when he is hungry (i.e. before he ate); but the purpose of the blessing after eating (Birkat Hamazon/bentching) is not merely to express gratitude to the Almighty for one’s bread. If that were the case, then the Talmud’s logic would be flawless because one is in greater need of food before he eats than afterwards. If you have to make a blessing afterwards, of course you will have to make it before. Therefore, the purpose of making a bracha (blessing) after eating must be more than just expressing gratitude, it must serve some other purpose also.
This bracha (blessing) specially addresses the state of mind a person is in after eating. Here are a few adjectives to describe how people feel after a good meal. Satiated, content, comfortable-and maybe even a bit drowsy. The Torah cautions that at this time, when we are feeling we aren’t lacking, an attitude of self-satisfaction and haughtiness can easily ensure, which in turn can cause anyone to forget about G-d and the realization that He is the one who keeps us healthy, allows our digestive and other systems to work. Our health can change in a moment and we might not be able to do anything about it. It’s hard to have these thoughts after eating gourmet bread, fine wine, and other gastronomic delicacies, topped by French pastry. The verse following the mandate to make a blessing after eating is “Look out for yourself, lest you forget HaShem,, your G-d…Lest you eat and be satiated.”
Making a blessing after eating is a preemptive strike against allowing one’s ego to forget about G-d. It is specifically after one eats that he needs this reminder. It’s much easier to say grace before eating because you are hungry, feel deficient, and therefore choose to acknowledge G-d but in Jewish consciousness the main time to remember Him is when we feel good about ourselves and that we lack nothing.
With this understanding, we appreciate why it’s not logical to make a blessing before we eat just because we make one after eating. The purpose is not just to thank G-d for what we have, its main function is that we don’t forget Him.
The more we make ourselves the center of the universe, the thicker the wall is between us and G-d. But it doesn’t end there because it was ego that caused the divide and that same self-centeredness will affect the relationships we have with the people in our life. The more me, the less you. This leads not only to selfishness but even to clinical narcissism and anti-social behavior. It would absurd to say that if one doesn’t thank G-d after eating this extreme behavior will ensue, but it is also apparent that one who takes time to thank G-d after eating will have a regular reminder where his or her food, health, and well being come from. As such, the Torah mandates it and it has been one of our most effective tools over the centuries for us to remain humble and true to ourselves.
(Sources: Brachos 21b;Meshech Chochmah]