Expressing Our Relationships with Hashem Through Birkas HaMazon
Miracles Hidden and Open
We may acquire a better understanding of the first blessing based on the words of the Ramban at the end of Parshas Bo. There he writes that, from the experience of the clearly obvious miracles that the Jewish people experienced in the Exodus and in their sojourn in the wilderness, we may discern the nature of hidden miracles, as well: namely, that everything is in fact miraculous, and represents the hand of Hashem guiding the world. For the most part, the miracles that occur in our experience are couched in the natural order, to the extent that one can come to rationalize and justify these occurrences as “the way of the world.” However, Hashem chose for a period of time to perform certain clearly miraculous acts, to facilitate our ability to see through the cover, to perceive various other phenomena as equally miraculous, even though their inner miraculous nature has been camouflaged.
A clear example of this is the fact that we are able to obtain our sustenance by eating bread. While this seems perfectly matter-of-fact and natural, in truth the entire phenomenon is mind-boggling. One plants a small seed, which turns into a plant, which then extracts minerals and water from the earth, carbon from the air, and energy from the sun. The plant is able to both grow itself, and to produce fruit or vegetation that contains the protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals that we need to survive and grow. By grinding the wheat kernels, kneading them with water, and then baking them, we are able to create bread. Eating bread creates a very satisfying subjective experience of tastiness and satiety. (Why we have subjective experiences that track physical/chemical activities is something that philosophers are still grappling with.) At the same time, our digestive system is able to extract the various components of the bread that our body needs, and transport them to each of the cells of our body. The cells are able to put these diverse elements to work, to provide energy, to build tissue, to ward off infection, to grow new cells and tissue, and to allow our brain and other organs to function properly.
While a botanist or a cell biologist might be able to describe these processes in more detail and more scientifically, they nevertheless remain miraculous. We are obligated to see through the camouflage and see this as nothing else than Hashem Himself feeding and sustaining us.
But how do we know that these aren’t simply evolved biological processes? To remove any scintilla of doubt, Hashem for a time sustained the Jewish people in a mode that was transparently miraculous: He fed them the mahn that fell from the sky each day except Shabbos. This was an undeniably miraculous experience. One of its purposes was to allow us to perceive all of our sustenance in the same way, as the direct handiwork of Hashem sustaining His creatures. While it is true that we need to work harder and exert more effort to produce bread than the Jews needed to in the wilderness, this is a matter only of degree. The Jews also needed to exert some hishtadlus (effort): They needed to go outside and bring the mahn into their house. Why couldn’t Hashem have caused the mahn to appear directly onto their plates? It was so that even with the mahn, some human effort would be necessary. That being the case, we are able to extend the inescapable conclusion – that the mahn was Hashem miraculously feeding His people – to the regular phenomenon of anyone eating bread. The differences are simply a matter of degree. Our bread requires more hishtadlus (toil and effort), and the miracles are better hidden, but this does not make it any less miraculous.
The Universal Hand of Hashem
With this perspective, we have a much better understanding and appreciation for the first blessing of Birkas HaMazon, composed by Moshe himself. Yes, we don’t eat mahn nowadays, and in fact the other nations never did. But we all consume bread for our livelihood. And this is truly miraculous, as we’ve described. The mahn was simply the signpost for the miracle that is constantly occurring when we – indeed, when any person – eats to satiety. It is nothing less than the hand of Hashem sustaining His creatures in a miraculous fashion, and with love and kindness.
There is, in fact, nothing uniquely Jewish about this fact. It is as true for us as it is for any human being. Therefore, this blessing was written in a universal tone – all creatures are sustained in this way by Hashem.
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By Rabbi Shlomo Goldfinger
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