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.

El Male Rachamim for Gaza

I recited this memorial prayer yesterday at a vigil sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine – Chicago. The gathering was organized “to grieve with us the lives lost in this most recent Israeli onslaught upon Gaza, and to honor the countless Palestinians who have fallen victim to the ongoing Nakba since 1948.” It is based on the traditional Jewish prayer “El Male Rachamim” (“God Filled with Compassion”). .

El male rachamim shochen bam’romim
ha’metzei menucha nechonah
tachat kanfei ha’shechinah.

Oh, God filled with compassion,
whose loving presence ever surrounds us
bring perfect rest to those
who have been killed without pity in Gaza,
in refugee camps, in apartments,
in homes that provided no sanctuary,
as they worked, as they slept,
as they sat down to share meals together,
as they fled from the overpowering might
of rockets and bombs from above.

Receive their souls with the fulness of your mercy.
bind them to the souls of their ancestors
whose lives were unjustly taken
during the dispossession of the Nakba –
an injustice that continues 
even as we call out to you now.

Source of all mercy, protect these precious souls 
with the shelter they were denied in their lifetimes.
Gather them under the softness of your wings,
show them love, bring them home.

Remind us that no one is forgotten in your sight, 
that all are welcome at your side,
that each and every one of their lives 
is a story of sacred worth and meaning
that can never be lost.

As we rededicate ourselves to their lives.
Turn our grief and anger into resolve.
Filll us with strength and will and purpose –
inspire us to stand as one in solidarity,
that together we may end this injustice
once and for all.

Ba’al ha’rachamim tastireihem
b’seter kanfecha le’olamim.

Source of all compassion,
extend your shelter across the land
that the refugees may return home soon in our day –
that all who live between the river and the sea
may enjoy the blessings of equity, 
of justice and of peace. 

V’nomar
and let us say, 
Amen.

A Letter to Gaza

I want you to know.
I want you to know I’m thinking of you.
I want you to know I think of you almost every day.
I want you to know I think of you even when the bombs aren’t falling.
I want you to know I remember.
I want you to know I remember the moment I tasted red tahini for the first time.
I remember Ali running out to a different restaurant so we could taste knafeh ghazawiya
I remember Firas’ baby daughter saying hello to each of us by name. 
I remember talking to the fishermen while they mended their nets.
I remember the exhilarating moment when we set out to sea,
the vicarious feeling of liberation even as we had to stay outside the firing zone.
I remember Erez, that dystopic funhouse maze
and your smiling faces greeting us on the other side. 
I remember the concrete benches lining the seaside,
painted with the names of cities and villages that are not forgotten.
I remember the restaurant outside Beach Camp, the perfect fish, the deep orange sunset.
I remember seeing Ashkelon’s smoke stacks off in the distance,
thinking to myself I am exactly where I need to be.
I remember walking back after dinner, the evening blackout, the hum of the generators.
I remember that final breakfast at the beach,
when I looked at the spot where the Bakr boys were shot down
and I thought of them playing football in Gaza shel mala – 
that is, the Gaza on high –
where there is nothing to fear from above
and how I will not rest until
heaven is brought back down to earth. 

A Lamentation for Gaza


Palestinian mourners carry the body of 11-year-old Hussain Hamad, killed by an Israeli military airstrike, during his funeral in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Gaza weeps alone.
Bombs falling without end
her cheeks wet with tears.
A widow abandoned
imprisoned on all sides
with none willing to save her.

We who once knew oppression
have become the oppressors.
Those who have been pursued
are now the pursuers.
We have uprooted families
from their homes, we have
driven them deep into
this desolate place,
this narrow strip of exile.

All along the roads there is mourning.
The teeming marketplaces
have been bombed into emptiness.
The only sounds we hear
are cries of pain
sirens blaring
drones buzzing
bitterness echoing
into the black vacuum
of homes destroyed
and dreams denied.

We have become Gaza’s master
leveling neighborhoods
with the mere touch of a button
for her transgression of resistance.
Her children are born into captivity
they know us only as occupiers
enemies to be feared
and hated.

We have lost all
that once was precious to us.
This fatal attachment to our own might
has become our downfall.
This idolatrous veneration of the land
has sent us wandering into
a wilderness of our own making.

We have robbed Gaza of
her deepest dignity
plunged her into sorrow and darkness.
Her people crowd into refugee camps
held captive by fences and buffer zones
gunboats, mortar rounds
and Apache missles.

We sing of Jerusalem,
to “a free people in their own land”
but our song has become a mockery.
How can we sing a song of freedom
imprisoned inside behind walls we have built
with our own fear and dread?

Here we sit clinging to our illusions
of comfort and security
while we unleash hell on earth
on the other side of the border.
We sit on hillsides and cheer
as our explosions light up the sky
while far below, whole neighborhoods
are reduced to rubble.

For these things I weep:
for the toxic fear we have unleashed
from the dark place of our hearts
for the endless grief
we are inflicting
on the people of Gaza.