Weekly Sermon

Weekly Sermon

HAAZINU 5780

With gratitude to my mentor Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Hopefully, we are all spiritually uplifted after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We’ve all heard so many sermons and we will hear more on Sukkot. Today I thought that instead of a sermon…I would like to help you focus some that spiritual energy we gained on the High Holy Days and do a Torah study with you about the mitzvah of making blessings—specifically the only 2 blessings required by the Torah.

Jews make lots of blessings. There are blessings for food, for lighting candles, for drinking wine, for getting married—not to mention the many blessings in our prayer services. Most blessings, however, have been decreed by the rabbis of old to help us appreciate how much Gd has blessed us with. But twice—with the 2 most basic human needs—the Torah prescribes that a Jew must make a bracha. The 1st appears in the parsha Eykev where it says: V’achalta v’savata uveyrachta et Hashem Elokecha, “And thou shall eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem your Gd.” (Deut. 8:10) This passage, of course refers to the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after meals. When we’ve eaten and we’re satisfied, we must be thankful and bless Hashem.

The 2nd blessing the Torah prescribes is in the beginning of today’s parsha: Ki sheym Hashem ekra, havu godeyl leyElokeynu, “When I will call upon the Name of Hashem, I will ascribe greatness to our Gd.” The Maharsha, in a comment on the Talmud (Brachot 21a) beautifully explains: “The Torah in its totality is the very essence—or better put—the name of Hashem Himself. Moses is telling the people, ‘When I proclaim the name of Hashem, that is to say, whenever I will read to you portions of the Torah, it is your obligation to ascribe greatness to Gd by means of a blessing.’” So this verse teaches us that we must say a bracha when we study Torah.

Question: Why should eating food and the study of Torah be the only 2 situations which warrant a Torah blessing? A human being requires 2 things in order to survive. The 1st is food. But the Torah (Deut. 8:3) clarifies something which many people take years to realize: Ki lo al halechem l’vado yicheyh haadam, “A person does not live by bread alone.” Life is based not only on a “what,” but also a “why.” Without a purposeful life, it’s not the body but the soul itself which withers and dies. Lack of physical nourishment causes death; lack of spiritual sustenance breeds emptiness and confusion and can lead to suicide. The Torah singled out the 2 most important keys to human existence and imposed the recitation of a blessing on each.

Yet a striking difficulty still remains—the order of the blessings. In the blessing for food, since the Torah states, “And thou shall eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem your Gd,” we say the Birkat HaMazon after we’ve eaten. With regard to study, however, the Torah states: “When I will call upon the Name of Hashem, I will ascribe greatness to our Gd.” 1st we “call upon Gd’s name”—namely, 1st we bless Gd—then “we ascribe greatness to Gd,” then we study His Torah and begin to appreciate how truly great He is.

Why is the Grace after meals recited after eating and the blessing for Torah study before one studies? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains with a reference to the source of the laws of burial—i.e. that we must bury our dead as soon as possible? The source is the passage in the Torah for the procedures of handling the corpse of those put to death by the courts for the most severe transgressions. Individuals who were given the sentence of “stoning” were then to be hung for a short while to display what happens to those who commit such heinous crimes. But we are not permitted to allow their bodies to remain there. The Torah is emphatic: “His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shall surely bury him the same day.” (Deut. 21:23) A human being is an image of Gd and his body must not be abused—even the worst criminal. And if we must take such care for the worst criminal, we can do no less for anyone else.

To summarize the principle: A law is sometimes stated in a situation where one might least expect it to apply in order to deduce its applicability to all other cases. For example: the rights of a woman in marriage are food, clothing and sexual privileges. The husband has to provide good food and good clothing that will make her feel pretty. She also has sexual privileges, meaning that sexual relations is the right of the woman and the obligation of the man. Where in the Torah do we learn this? From the case of the slave girl who becomes a wife. The Torah (Ex. 21:10) demands that her rights not be diminished. Now if she can demand her rights as a wife, how much more obviously so any other woman—no matter the circumstances.

Now we can understand why the Torah differentiates between food and Torah study with regard to blessing before or after. The Torah will state the law in that situation where it most needs emphasis. Before the meal, when a person is hungry, there’s no need to insist that a human being think of Gd. It comes naturally—if he’s hungry, he asks Gd for food. Once one’s belly is full, however, people no longer feel that great need to thank Gd. Strange, isn’t it, that poor people pray more than rich people—even though rich people have more to be grateful for. That is why the Torah says: V’achalta v’savata uveyrachta, “Eat, be satiated and then bless.” Don’t forget blessings even when our bellies are full. What the Torah did was to address the situation where we might most fear that the law would be forgotten.

Not so, however, with regard to words of Torah. Blessings after the study of Torah do not have to be commanded because one leaves the study of Torah in an uplifted state—absorbing the wisdom and genius of the words of Gd. Gratefulness then flows naturally from our hearts. It is rather before people have opened the text—before they have had an opportunity to grasp the delights and the joys of Torah—that the Torah is concerned. So the Torah prescribes that we make a blessing before we begin to study Torah to help us appreciate the rewards that will follow.

It is the unfortunate reality of life that we are far more aware of our physical hunger than our spiritual starvation. In retrospect we invariable discover the truth: the finest meal may temporarily fill us—but it’s only the study of Torah which leaves us truly fulfilled—and that is the ultimate blessing. May we all have a New Year filled with blessings and may we elevate ourselves and our souls through the study of Torah. Amen!

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