Dear Cyber Rav,
This past week, I ate in a kosher restaurant with a group of people from all
different Jewish backgrounds. Secular, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews all sat around the table. We were all in New York for a seminar on the Middle East conflict.
At the end of dinner, the Orthodox men and women took out their benchers to say the Birkat Hamazon. I was torn whether to participate or not. Ultimately, I decided not to join in.
The truth is, after spending the day looking at images of war, of extreme poverty, and hunger, I was in no mood to thank God for dinner. How can I say that God gives bread to all after a day of watching pictures which negate that statement? Furthermore, even if I had not been at that seminar, poverty and hunger are merely a click away on the television every day.
I wanted to join my fellow Jews in the grace after our meal. I think our prayers connect us to each other and to God. But how can I thank Him for a meal knowing full well that so many will go to sleep hungry every night?
I find myself wanting to pray but I am often hindered by this guilt. How do you handle this issue when you pray?
Postponing Prayer as I Ponder the Poor
Dear Postponing Prayer,
Great question! I want to first commend you for connecting the words in a prayer book with some of the horrific scenes we see on television. When the two seemingly contradict each other, we've got a problem that requires our attention. You should know that you are not the first person to ask this question, and you will probably not be the last. Let me give you a few of my thoughts--
If you didn't recite birkat hamazon because you didn't feel like thanking a God who is such an underachiever, good. Nothing is as irritating as an insincere display of gratitude. And you know God--He reads right through us. He would have seen your insincerity immediately. Oddly enough, your decision to not say birkat hamazon probably meant more to Him than had you decided to say it. I believe in a God who honors us for using our heads and for being honest.
Let me tell you why you could possibly have said birkat hamazon, in spite of all those horrific scenes on television.
First of all, theologically and socially, to note that God is hazan et hakol, the One who feeds everybody, is probably a true statement. There is probably enough food to go around in this world for everybody. The failure of food distribution systems in this world have less to do with God than they do with politics, economics, and technology. Blaming God for a problem that rests squarely in the lap of humankind is a huge cop-out and I would urge all not to stumble into that disingenuity. When we send food relief to worn-torn countries and the ruling junta burns the supplies at the airport for fear that they will aid their political foes, this is not God's problem. It's ours.
Secondly, even when someone else does not have, that should not preclude an expression of gratitude to God for what we do have. The fact that others don't have is certainly a problem, but the fact that we do have is a blessing. We should never take for granted the blessings that we do have. If this recession has taught us anything, it should be that what we have today may not be with us tomorrow. We should therefore thank God while we can.
Thirdly, the blessing hazan et hakol, the One who feeds everybody, should be taken as a challenge. The Jewish people believe that God operates within this world, in part because the faithful—read: you and me!—are the hands of God. When we pray hazan et hakol, we remind ourselves of our own responsibility to partner with God, to bring the goodness of heaven to earth below.
Finally, some have interpreted hazan et hakol to mean that God feed us in ways that human beings cannot, that is, God feeds us and sustains us with Torah. The initial part of the blessing talks about God feeding us with goodness. The goodness with which He feeds us is the understanding, the motivation, the imperative to do what is right and just. This is the whole idea of not living by bread alone. We require other things that are just as important as bread, if not more so.
And so, in conclusion, I find more reasons to recite birkat hamazon than skip it. Expressing our gratitude for every little thing we enjoy is a powerful act of religiosity. It helps us focus on the role we should be playing to be God's partner in binging His blessings and ours to others within God's beautiful world.
Rabbi Rafi Rank
The Cyber Rav