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Moses instructs the people to act justly, to love God and to follow God’s commandments, and describes the rewards for doing so. He warns them against forgetting God during times of prosperity. He recounts various elements of their history, including the story of the Golden Calf and the second tablets of stone.

Another voice

Ekev by Nigel Savage :: 5768

Nigel Savage is the director of Hazon, the largest environmental organization in the American Jewish community.

I'm writing this in New York, but by the time we’re reading parshat Ekev this Shabbat I expect to be at Limmudfest itself, in Derbyshire. Between times I'll have flown over the Atlantic (I hope), and hiked for two days in the Peak District as part of Tikkun Trek. So it’s appropriate that this week's parsha is a powerful stepping-off point for a reflection on our relationship to the physical world.

The famous phrase "v'achalta, v'savata, u'veirachta" in chapter 8 is the rabbinical basis for birkat hamazon, and that is why this phrase appears in the first paragraph of the traditional bensching. (The words mean something like "you will eat, and you will be full, and you will bless".) The Talmud, in Sota 33a, understands this phrase to mean "in every language you will bless". I didn't understand the full significance until I read something in 1995 that placed it very powerfully in context.

In 1990 a group of Jewish leaders went to meet the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, his home in India in exile from Tibet. It was estimated at the time that roughly half of the Westerners in Dharamsala were Jewish, and the Jewish leaders wanted to know what it was that the Buddhists had that we didn't. Meantime, the Dalai Lama had fled Tibet in 1959, assuming he would be gone for perhaps 3 months. Now 30 years had gone by and a generation of Tibetans was growing up in exile in India and the UK and the US. The Dalai Lama wanted to know how this first exilic generation might retain a connection to the all-embracing confluence of Tibetan religion and peoplehood – language, culture, life-cycle, relationship to place.

Rodger Kamenetz wrote a well-known book about the trip in 1994, The Jew In The Lotus, and in 1995 I read a review of this book by Rabbi Joy Levitt, one of the participants on the trip. In her review she recounted a story not in the book itself. They had eaten a meal with the Dalai Lama that had begun with bread, and thus with motzi, and were now about to end with bensching, and so before bensching they translated it and explained it. When do you say this? asked the Dalai Lama, and they said, any time we’ve eaten bread. In what countries? – in all the countries we've ever lived in. For how long? – well, probably for at least 3,000 years, because the oldest part goes back to that phrase, v'achalta v'savata u'veirachta. And you bless the food and connect it to your hope one day to return to Israel? Er, yes, said the Jewish leaders.

And at that point the Dalai Lama commissioned two young Tibetan monks to write an equivalent prayer for the Tibetan people.

In the review, Joy wrote that she had bensched after meals on Shabbat her entire life, and yet she never truly understood the bensching, and its extraordinary power, until that moment.

When you read this week’s parsha, therefore, you read the phrase in its original context, surrounded by the pesukim before and after it – a celebration of the land of Israel and its bounty, and a warning that we not abuse the abundance we are blessed with. When you read those words in the bensching – now or any week – the rabbis intended that we would hear echoes of the context in which the phrase appears in this week's parsha.

Both the food that we eat, and the words of the blessings, are a bridge. We cross-over that bridge many times each day, sometimes consciously, more often unconsciously – with these three words acting as a marker to bring us back to awareness. Where did our food come from? Who grew it, who raised it; perhaps who slaughtered it? Who packaged it and how did it travel? Who prepared our meal? And where will our waste go; our leftover food and also the food we have ingested – within our bodies, and when its residue leaves our bodies? How does eating connect us to friends and family, to the Jewish people, to the wider world we’re part of, and to the land and history and future of Israel? All this in these three words – and in the food we eat.

So whether you're in Derbyshire this weekend, or London, New York, Jerusalem or anywhere else: may the words of our tradition help us to eat with mindfulness, and may our food and our food choices be a source of blessing.


More by Nigel Savage

Another voice by Joel Stanley

'God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years... He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the LORD decrees.' (Deuteronomy 8:2-3)

In late May I decided to do a 'Master Cleanse', also known as the Lemon Juice or Maple Syrup diet. This consisted of consuming nothing but fresh lemon juice, maple syrup, water and cayenne pepper for a period of ten days, not to lose weight (I have little enough to lose as it is!) but to increase my awareness and give my body a break from processed foods.

According to a recent article by Eliezer Diamond, modern scholars have too often ignored or marginalised the ascetic practices of the rabbis. In other words, fasting for spiritual reasons - outside of the standard fast days - is not unknown in our tradition.

Whatever the medical science it, I had a surprising amount of energy and focus. If anything, not eating made me more conscious of my existence aside from the constant intake of food. Of course, I am aware that it is a great privilege to be able to choose to temporarily forgo food, and there are many people in the world who struggle to find enough to eat on a daily basis. However, for those of us living in the midst of abundance, it seems it may still be possible to discover, first hand, that 'man does not live on bread alone'.


More by Joel Stanley

Other Divrei Torah on Ekev

  • 5766 (Claire Mandel)
  • 5766 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5767 (Miriam (Feldman) Kaye)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Claire Mandel)
  • 5769 (EJ Cohen)
  • 5770 (Daniel Beaupain)
  • 5770 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5772 (Ittay Fletcher)
  • 5772 (Mark Lazar)
  • 5773 (Clive Lawton)
  • 5773 (Sam Clifford)
  • 5774 (Naomi Goldman)
  • 5774 (Robert Berman)