August 23, 2019

Torah portion: A prayer evolves with its people

I recently returned home from my 10th summer at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, Calif., where every year I spend two weeks on the faculty. At the end of every meal, the dining hall is filled with the lively sounds of campers singing Birkat ha-Mazon the blessing after eating — as loudly as they possibly can. It is camp, so yes, there is banging on the tables and an occasional “whoop-de-do” added, but it is easy to overlook these because the campers are praying with such joy.

I remember learning Birkat ha-Mazon when I attended Bureau of Jewish Education retreats when I was in high school. I did not grow up going to Jewish summer camp, so these weekends were my first experiences with Jewish camping. I did not know the blessing — it was not part of my daily ritual — but all of my friends knew not only the words but also the “secret” hand gestures. It was a sign of someone who knew camp — who belonged — and I wanted to learn it so I could be a part of it. Mastering all of that Hebrew felt like a major accomplishment and as if I had earned the right to bang on the tables with the rest of the kids.

The commandment to pray after eating appears in Deuteronomy 8:10, in which we are told, “When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land which has been given you.” 

In a commentary on this week’s portion, Matot-Masei, midrash Bamidbar Rabbah asks, “Before they entered the Land, what blessing did they say after meals?” The midrash answers that the rabbis taught that the people would recite only the first blessing that ends with the words, “Who feeds all.” Later, after they entered the Land of Israel, they added a second blessing, “For the Land and for the food.”

The midrash goes on to explain other additions to the Birkat ha-Mazon. When the Land was destroyed and the people exiled, they added the blessing, “Who rebuilds Jerusalem.” When the people who had been slain during the Bar Kokhba revolt were finally buried, “Who is good and does good” was added — “Who is good” because the bodies did not decay, and “Who does good” because they were given burial.

As the Jewish experience changes, so too Birkat ha-Mazon changes, to reflect the new reality. When good things happen, it changes or expands in order to show our gratitude. It’s easy to understand why: We want to express our thanks, and as things get better, we have more to be thankful for. But we continued to add to the prayer in response to tragedy — when things were difficult, when the Temple was destroyed, when we were kicked out of the Land, when it became clear that our last hope for a rebellion against Rome would not succeed, we still responded with blessing. We continued to add to the blessing, finding things to be thankful for even amid tragedy. 

This is part of faith, to look toward the future with hope and in recognition of blessing.

And this is how our tradition evolves: Our experiences shape who we are, the way we interact in the world and even the way we pray. As we grow and change, our tradition grows with us.

URJ Camp Newman has made its own addition to the Birkat ha-Mazon, adding to the section that includes several blessings that begin with “ha rachaman” — “May the Merciful One.” One summer many years ago, the Israeli staff, many of whom spend a summer at camp after their military service, suggested adding an additional prayer for peace — “May the Merciful One create brotherhood between the children of Israel and the children of Ishmael” — and it has become a part of the Camp Newman minhag (custom).

There are times when it will be easy to acknowledge our gratitude and to recognize the good things in our lives — such as having had enough to eat and being satisfied — and to offer blessings for them. There are also times when we will have to actively seek out blessing, to look for opportunities to add joy and blessing, even when it may seem like there is little blessing to be found. 

The addition made at Camp Newman is an example of the latter: It reminds us that there is always hope for peace; it affirms our faith that the things that unite us will ultimately be stronger than the things that divide us, and that we can live in peace with our neighbors. 

Although the midrash wonders about the blessing before there was the Land of Israel, our modern-day campers teach us how we can continue to adapt the blessing, giving us another opportunity to pray for the Land and people of Israel. 

Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik is a rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, serves on the faculty at URJ Camp Newman and is a member of the first Edah Rabbinic Cohort with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.