A New Birkat Hamazon/Blessing After the Meal

Chaverai nevarech/Friends, let us offer blessings…

...for the food we have shared. We give thanks for the earth and its goodness, created to feed and sustain all that lives. As we rejoice in the ever-giving blessings of creation, let us commit to spreading your abundance to all who dwell upon the earth. May we forever work to create a world in which hunger is no more, as it is written, there shall be no needy among you. Baruch atah adonai, chazan et hakol – Blessed are you, who feeds us all. Amen.

...for the lands upon which we dwell. May the inhabitants of every land live in safety and security. Let us all strive to be caretakers of the land, that it may yield its abundance to future generations, as it is written, the land will give forth its fruits and you will eat to fullness and dwell in security upon it. We acknowledge that too many of us enjoy the bounty of lands that have been colonized and stolen from their original inhabitants. May we work to bring the day when all who have been exiled and dispossessed know restoration and reparation. Baruch atah adonai, al ha’aretz ve’al hamazon – Blessed are you, for the land and its sustenance. Amen.

…for the vision of a world complete. May this dream become reality soon in our own day, that every land may be a Zion, every city a Jerusalem, every home a sanctuary offering welcome to all. May your world be rebuilt upon a foundation of compassion, equity and justice, as it is written, compassion and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss. Baruch atah adonai, boneh ha’olam b’tzedek v’rachamim – Blessed are you, who rebuilds the world in justice and compassion. Amen.

…for your abundant goodness. Teach how to walk in your ways: the ways of kindness and decency, graciousness and understanding, now and always. Just as you nourish us unconditionally, so may we learn how to take care of one another with openness and love. For it is written, you open your hand and nourish the desire of all life. Baruch atah adonai, ha’tov ve’hameitiv – Blessed are you, who is good and who bestows goodness upon us all. Amen.

Commentary:

In composing this new Birkat Hamazon/Blessing After the Meal, I maintained the essential structure of the traditional prayer, which consists of four basic spiritual themes or categories. As with the other new liturgies that I’ve written, I seek here to compose Jewish prayers that express a Diasporist ethic; that is to say, liturgy that views the entire world as our “homeland” and resists the influence of modern political Zionism, which has become so thoroughly enmeshed in contemporary Jewish liturgy.

I’ll unpack each section here in turn. For purposes of comparison, a Hebrew/English version of the Birkat Hamazon can be found here.

.Friends, let us offer blessings… This is a simple, shortened version of the zimun – an invitation to prayer – when 10 or more people have just shared a meal.

...for the food: The first blessing offers gratitude to God for providing the food that sustains all creation. In this section, I chose to make explicit the fact that although the earth contains enough abundance to feed all of humanity, we nonetheless live in a world of rampant hunger. Thus, the moral imperative: “Let us …work to create a world in which hunger is no more.” For this reason, I chose to substitute the traditional Biblical verse, Deuteronomy 8:10 (“When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you”), with Deuteronomy 15:4: (“There shall be no needy among you.”)

...for the lands: The second blessing traditionally gives thanks for Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel. In keeping with a centering of the Jewish diaspora over one particular piece of land, I chose to render this wording “for the lands” rather than “for the land (al ha’aretz.) In other words, we give thanks for the many lands upon which the Jewish people have made – and continue to make – their homes.

Although the traditional version was written well before the era of Zionism, many contemporary versions of the Birkat Hamazon use this section to offer thanksgiving for the establishment of the state of Israel. (The Reconstructionist version of this prayer for instance, includes the words, “for the culture, faith and hope of our people alive once more in Eretz Yisrael.”) Some versions also include a prayer for Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israeli Independence Day as well.

The traditional version of this section also invokes the Exodus from Egypt (“you redeemed us from the House of Bondage.”) Here, I chose to universalize this message and render it as a prayerful land acknowledgment. This recognizes the undeniable fact that many who say this prayer for the land will be invoking it on land that was literally colonized and stolen from others. Finally, to recognize the threat of global climate change to the lands upon which we live, I’ve also highlighted the importance of safeguarding God’s abundance for future generations. For a Biblical verse, I chose Leviticus 25:19, which references living upon the land “in security.”

…for the vision of a world complete: The traditional version of the section thanks God for the city of Jerusalem, expressing the messianic yearning for God to re-establish the city and to rebuild the Temple. In composing this section, I transvalued the messianic ideal into a vision of the world “as it should be” – embodied by an era of universal ” compassion, equity and justice.” As the Hebrew word for Jerusalem, Yerushalayim – contains the root Sh”LM, which means “wholeness,” I chose the image of a “world complete.”

I also chose to idealize Jerusalem to represent the mythic “city of peace” in which which we all yearn to live. In this regard, I was particularly inspired by the classic rabbinic notion of “Yerushalayim Shel Mala” or “Jerusalem of the Heavens.” (I personally find this much more powerful than a quasi-idolatrous attachment to an earthly piece of land which, tragically, has rarely known a moment of peace.) For the Biblical verse, I chose Psalm 85:10, which evokes a vision of this universal future with incredible poetic beauty.

for your abundant goodness: This final section was added to the Birkat Hamazon in the aftermath of the disastrous Bar Kochba revolt in the second century CE, reflecting a sense of healing and optimism – and faith in God’s goodness – even in the wake of a cataclysmic collective tragedy. In my rendering, I chose to highlight not only God’s goodness, but the moral imperative to mirror that goodness in our own relationships with one another. For the Biblical verse, I retained the traditional line from Psalm 145:16: “You open your hand…”

I ended this section – and the Birkat Hamazon as a whole – with the traditional blessing, “Baruch atah adonai, ha’tov ve’hameitiv” (“Blessed are you who is good and who bestows good upon us all”). This blessing is traditionally recited at times “which bring pleasure to an entire community” – an eminently appropriate way to end a blessing following a communal meal.

The Sacred Carob Tree of Khirbat al-Lawz

DCF 1.0

The carob tree in the old village center of Khirbat al-Lawz

Every Tu B’shvat,
on a hill just west of Jerusalem,
almond trees are blooming their white blossoms
down a rocky terraced hillside.
Stone rubble is laced here and there along its slope –
the only remaining traces of the village
they called Khirbat al-Lawz.

Not long ago this place was populated by
hundreds of villagers who grew
olives, grapes, figs and tended farms
with sheep and chickens.
On the hillside there are two springs
called Ein al-Quff that sent water
down ducts that led to a well
built into the hillside.

Generation after generation
the farmers of the region
would parcel and share this water
to grow their crops.
Every evening after work, it is said,
the men of Khirbat al-Lawz
would gather near a carob tree
in the village center
to talk, smoke, drink and sing
late into the evening.

This life vanished forever on July 14 1948,
when the Haganah occupied and expelled
the people of Khirbat al-Lawz during a military action
known as “Operation Dani.”
The villagers remained in the nearby hills
hoping to return at the end of war,
but soldiers from the Harel Brigade
forbade their return
on pain of death.

Soon after the Jewish National Fund
built a thick forest of non-indigenous
evergreens around Khirbat al-Lawz
and the neighboring village of Sataf.
Today, the JNF website tells us:

This site offers many stunning walks in nature,
where you can also see olive orchards
and agricultural plots on
ancient agricultural terraces.
The two springs that emerge
from the site serve as a reminder
of an almost vanished Hebrew culture
dating back thousands of years.
Here, as in the days of the ancient Israelites,
irrigated vegetable gardens grow
alongside vineyards, olive groves and almond orchards
that need no artificial irrigation
and color the countryside green all year round.

Hikers today will surely not notice it,
but not far from these well groomed trails
you can still find the village center of Khirbat al-Lawz.
The spot is marked by an ancient carob tree
rising out of the thorns and dead grass –
bent and tilted to the side, but still growing.

According to the Jewish sages
it takes carob trees seventy years to fully bear fruit.
When we plant them, they say,
it is not for our own sake,
but for the benefit of future generations.

So this Tu B’shvat, think of a hillside
just west of Jerusalem
where the almond trees are blooming
down a rocky terraced hillside
and a sacred carob tree grows sideways
where a village center once stood.

Then close your eyes and imagine
the wind breezing through its leaves,
whispering to future generations:
you are not forgotten,
the time will yet come
for your return.

Is The Bible Destroying Creation?

From this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shoftim:

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy (“bal tashchit”) its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you in the city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

It’s a tribute to the subversive creativity of Talmudic tradition that the Rabbis could take a text such as this – coming from a litany of Biblical laws concerning warfare – and transform it into Jewish tradition’s foundational environmental commandment.

Indeed, the sages of the Talmud would eventually apply the term bal tashchit (“do not destroy”) to apply to issues far transcending concern over fruit-bearing trees during wartime.  The concept “bal tashchit” eventually became a Jewish legal term referring to the destruction of natural resources on a wide scale, ranging from the wanton killing of animals (Talmud Hullin 7b) to the wasting of fuel (Talmud Shabbat 67b).

Since the Jewish imperative to care for the environment is Biblically based, it might come as a surprise to learn that many in the environmental movement blame Biblical tradition for promoting the exploitation of the earth’s natural resources.  I still remember well when Time Magazine promoted environmental concerns by choosing Earth as “Planet of the Year”  in 1989.  In its cover story, Time made the following pointed observation:

Humanity’s current predatory relationship with nature reflects a man-centered world view that has evolved over the ages. Almost every society has had its myths about the earth and its origins. The ancient Chinese depicted Chaos as an enormous egg whose parts separated into earth and sky, yin and yang. The Greeks believed Gaia, the earth, was created immediately after Chaos and gave birth to the gods. In many pagan societies, the earth was seen as a mother, a fertile giver of life. Nature — the soil, forest, sea — was endowed with divinity, and mortals were subordinate to it.

The Judeo-Christian tradition introduced a radically different concept. The earth was the creation of a monotheistic God, who, after shaping it, ordered its inhabitants, in the words of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” The idea of dominion could be interpreted as an invitation to use nature as a convenience.

Ouch.

In fairness, it should be said that the key word phrase in the above is “could be interpreted as.” We might say it is not Biblical tradition per se, but rather a corrupt misinterpretation of the Bible (specifically the oft-quoted Genesis 1:28) we might blame for introducing this “radical new concept.”

If Genesis 1 teaches us anything at all, it is that creation is the sacred product of a divine process. In this context, God does not simply hand the earth over to humanity so that we may run roughshod over creation as we see fit.  In this regard, the Torah’s use of the term “dominion” (“kivshuha“) clearly denotes mastery as responsibility, not exploitation.

This point is powerfully driven home by the interpretation of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who commented on the Deuteronomy verse above by saying that humanity’s careless waste of God’s creation is nothing short of idolatry:

Yea, “Do not destroy anything” is the first and most general call of God… If you should now raise your hand to play a childish game, to indulge in senseless rage, wishing to destroy that which you should only use, wishing to exterminate that which you should only master, if you should regard the beings beneath you as objects without rights, not perceiving God Who created them, and therefore desire that they feel the might of your presumptuous mood, instead of using them only as the means of wise human activity – then God’s call proclaims to you, “Do not destroy anything!

Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then do you have the right over them which I have given you as a human. However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human but an animal and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you sin against Me!”  This is what God calls unto you, and with this call does God represent the greatest and the smallest against you and grants the smallest as also the greatest a right against your presumptuousness…

…In truth, there is no one nearer to idolatry than one who can disregard the fact that creation and its creatures are the property of God, who presumes also to have the right, having the might, to destroy them according to a presumptuous act of will. Yes, that one is already serving the most powerful idols – anger, pride, and above all, ego, which in its passion regards itself as the master of things. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, 56:397-398)

As Rabbi Hirsh would have it, it is not Western religious tradition, but rather the idolatrous twisting of this tradition that has led humanity to its “current predatory relationship with nature.” If we do indeed “use nature as a convenience,” it is not the Torah, but rather own “anger, pride, and ego” upon which we must ultimately lay blame.