Despite the skyscrapers in the background broadcasting Israel’s economic and technological prowess, the Neve Shaanan neighborhood feels like rock bottom, with homelessness and beggars scavenging the trash for food. Desperation and destitution fills the air. David Agaev, director of a project called “The Loft,” working with the homeless in Tel Aviv, says, “It all starts with food. If you are hungry, you can’t be productive.”
An empty stomach can lead people to act impetuously and make questionable decisions. The Torah is chock-full of examples of hunger’s harmful spell. Both Abraham and Jacob relocate to Egypt to escape famine in Canaan. Famished Esau trades his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Generations later, the Children of Israel’s lengthy sojourn in the desert and their faith in the entire Exodus enterprise is challenged by their lack of access to food and water.
As Moses attempts to prepare the next generation for life across the Jordan River, food plays a prominent role. After 40 years of manna as their daily sustenance, the Children of Israel can expect a land flowing with milk and honey, a veritable foodie haven to delight their palettes.
In what sounds like an ethical will, Ekev reminds the people that the Promised Land is where promises are to be honored by both parties of the covenantal relationship. For the Israelites, this will entail internalizing God’s role in the routine aspects of everyday life as much as in the miraculous Exodus from Egypt.
Reinforcing this message, the Torah teaches: “And you will eat and will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord, your God, for the good land God has given you” [Deuteronomy 8:10]. At face value, this biblical source for Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals, expresses our appreciation to our Heavenly Provider.
In the eyes of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century German sage, gratitude is only the beginning. He writes: “Only if we resolve … that the energy we will gain from eating will be used in the service of God, will we be worthy of that enjoyment.” According to Hirsch, something transformative transpires when we have eaten our fill. Satiation becomes an invitation to fulfilling our covenantal responsibilities.
This week’s Torah portion also lists multiple warnings about what would happen if the Children of Israel were to go astray. Moses’ worst nightmare is that our feeling satiated would blind us to our people’s purpose.
Looking again at the word v’savata (“and you shall be satisfied”), we discover that the root of the Hebrew word is shin-vet-ayin. Interestingly enough, the same root can be found within the word teeshavay’ah (“you will promise”) The latter appears in Ekev after describing how God cares for the needy by providing them with bread. The text goes on to say: “The Lord, your God, you shall fear, you shall serve the Almighty, to God you shall cleave, and in God’s name you shall promise” [Deut. 10:20].
I believe that it is not coincidental that the Hebrew words for feeling satisfied and making a promise have exactly the same root-letters. The Torah’s double entendre reminds us not just to express our appreciation to God for sustenance in the moment, but to forever be God’s partners in caring for and feeding those in need.
The Torah teaches us in Ekev that every time we have a meal, the blessings we invoke in Birkat Hamazon and the subsequent feelings of satiation should remind us of the everlasting promise we made to God to repair the world.
Rabbi Charles E. Savenor serves as the director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.
Shabbat Candles: 7:24 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 7:12-11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3
Havdalah: 8:23 p.m.