A very passionate student once said to me, “What comes out of your mouth is more important than what goes into your mouth.” She expressed a neat dichotomy that squarely placed speech in the power seat and relegated food to some lower status. As I reluctantly pushed my foodie proclivities aside, I understood what she was saying: “The ethics of speech trumps all, including rules or limitations on what we eat.”
Yet, in the end, I couldn’t buy it. What if you are hungry? What if you keep kosher? What if you care about food justice? Can you really divorce what goes in from what comes out?
“You shall eat and be satisfied and bless Adonai your God for the good land that God gave you” (Deuterono-my 8:10). This verse from our parashah adamantly refuses to accept such a neat dichotomy. It is in the brilliant interpretation of this short verse that we find the rabbis’ absolute insistence that what goes in can’t be divorced from what comes out — they are ethically and mindfully intertwined in Jewish life.
This verse juxtaposes the satisfaction of eating, what goes in, with the blessing that follows, what comes out. In the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis conclude that this verse is the basis for Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after meals. The Qumran scrolls reveal that this practice dates back as far as the fifth century BCE. Birkat HaMazon is said over any meal that is preceded by motzi, the blessing said over bread.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a towering leader of the Jewish Renewal movement, comments on the unique contribution of rabbinic Judaism in this realm. He points out that the sacrificial system that fills the pages of the Book of Leviticus placed an exclusive emphasis on what went in the mouth. We performed sacrifices and then, depending on who we were, we got to eat them.
Eating is still a big part of being Jewish, even if we no longer offer sacrifices. But what the rabbis added was an additional emphasis on what comes out of the mouth — blessings, thanksgiving and an acknowledgement of God’s presence in this amazing world.
But the comment from my student shows how the pendulum can swing too far the other way. In other words, if we say that only the words are important and not the act, then the ethics of eating can become divorced from the act of eating.
My children are fond of telling me, “Mom, I said it in my head. I don’t need to say the words out loud.” But if we keep the thanksgiving inside, if we don’t give voice to the blessing, it will not balance out what we have enjoyed.
Judaism balances these two concepts: “v’akhalta — when you have eaten,” or what goes in, with “savata uvrakhta — when you have been satisfied and blessed,” or what comes out. Blessings or brachot are our tools for mindfulness in the moment of eating. And so we are charged with saying brachot at every turn.
This is more challenging for some of us. We are rushing through meals, trying to meet the demands of a busy life and the needs of those around us. It can feel difficult to carve out the time in our day to say blessings. Some might not know the words of the blessings — especially Birkat HaMazon.
So we can set goals for how to increase the presence of blessings in our lives. Some of us can learn the Birkat HaMazon. If we already know the prayer, we can strive to become comfortable enough to lead it on behalf of others. And for some of us, we simply need to slow down to make ample room for blessings in our lives.
Abraham Joshua Heschel gently reminds us that it is by living as Jews that we attain our faith as Jews. We do not have faith in deeds; we attain faith through deeds. So we, too, can attain our faith through the act of Birkat HaMazon. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at email@example.com.