The Land is our home base, our center, our place of origin
The very first Rashi in the Torah notes that the nations of the world will contest Klal Yisrael’s right to Eretz Yisrael. Yirmiyahu Hanavi describes our Land as an “eretz chemdah,” a desirable land (Yirmiyahu 3). The Midrash explains: “the land that many kings desired” (Shemos Rabbah 32).
History has certainly proven these words prophetic. The Land that takes center focus in Jewish thoughts and prayers also occupies center stage in the world theater. Even ancient mapmakers recognized that Eretz Yisrael is the global nucleus. They placed it in the center of the known world, at the junction of the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
When Chazal wanted to express the centrality of Eretz Yisrael, they dubbed it “tabor ha’aretz,” the umbilicus, or navel, of the world (Midrash Tanchuma). The navel is considered the midpoint of the body because it’s situated at the dividing line of the torso, between its upper and lower segments.
The umbilicus also represents the foundation of a human being, the link of the fetus to its mother, and Eretz Yisrael was the starting point of Creation.
The Biblical name for Eretz Yisrael is Eretz Canaan. Rav Moshe Shapira explains that the word “canaan” can be employed as a common noun denoting “merchant,” a trader who travels on business and then returns home to complete his travel circuit. The Land is our home base, our center, and our place of origin.
The Gift That Keeps Giving
In this light, it’s fitting that Bircas Ha’aretz, the second brachah in Bircas Hamazon, which focuses on Eretz Yisrael, is considered the centerpiece of Bircas Hamazon. This brachah was composed by Yehoshua, on the occasion of the joyous, long-awaited entry of the nation into Eretz Yisrael, after spending 40 years in the Midbar. The Midrash states that there is no brachah in Bircas Hamazon more beloved than the brachah of al ha’aretz v’al hamazon.
The Maharal notes that Bircas Ha’aretz is particularly emphatic because it both begins and concludes with expressions of thanksgiving — Nodeh lecha Hashem Elokeinu and V’al hakol anachnu modim lach. (Although it does not start with Baruch Atah, Bircas Ha’aretz is a new brachah.)
This brachah also contains the Biblical source for the mitzvah of Bircas Hamazon: v’achalta v’savata u’veirachta es Hashem Elokecha al ha’aretz hatovah asher nasan lach, which explicitly states that it’s insufficient to merely thank for the food we’ve eaten; we must also express gratitude for Eretz Yisrael, “the land that Hashem has given you.”
In doing so, the Maharal explains, we thank Hashem not only for the gift of the specific food we’ve recently enjoyed, but also for the gift that keeps on giving: a Land that can produce life-giving food in perpetuity. Bircas Ha’aretz parallels the brachah of modim in Shemoneh Esrei, for both express the very essence of hodayah: a thank-you for life itself.
Curiously, the rule about mentioning the Land in Bircas Hamazon applies even when the food we have consumed was grown outside of Eretz Yisrael. In order to understand why this is so, we must examine the relationship of Eretz Yisrael with the other countries around the globe.
The Midrash clarifies the words “a Land that Hashem seeks” (Devarim 11:12) to mean “He seeks only this land, and it’s only because of this land that He cares for all the other lands on Earth.” That is, Eretz Yisrael isn’t only the geographic center, but also the source of abundance for the entire world.
We recognize in Bircas Ha’aretz that any food we’ve eaten — no matter its geographical origin — has come to us via ha’aretz hatovah asher nasan loch, the Land Hashem has given you.
Thus the tabor ha’aretz metaphor takes on new meaning. Just as the umbilicus is the source of survival for the fetus, connecting it to his mother, the nurturing host, so does Eretz Yisrael serve as provider of food to all earthly regions, by virtue of its attachment to the ultimate Host, the Creator of the world.
The three Biblically mandated blessings of Bircas Hamazon follow a natural progression from general to specific, as outlined by the Maharal: We begin with Bircas Hazan, thanking Hashem who is nosein lechem l’chol basar, who gives food to every creature. We then focus on the Land that has been gifted exclusively to Klal Yisrael. Lastly, we mention the Bais Hamikdash, which is the climax and completion of our national needs.
This is why the two latter brachos are written in second person, unlike Bircas Hazan, which is written in third person. We address Hashem directly to reflect the fact that with the entry of the nation into Eretz Yisrael, our relationship with Him grew closer. We underscore that Eretz Yisrael isn’t only a fertile land that delivers produce.
As Rav Hirsch puts it, Eretz Yisrael is more than a source of food: “This land, both in flower and in desolation, is to us a permanent memorial of the Divine Providence that keeps watch over the Jewish People.” It’s to this idea that Bircas Ha’aretz is dedicated.
The Gemara states that “eretz chemdah tovah u’rechavah” is a crucial phrase in Bircas Ha’aretz — the omission of those words would disqualify or diminish its recitation. When we describe Eretz Yisrael as a Land that is desirable, good, and spacious, we’re declaring that our Land is not just materially desirable — it’s also intrinsically, spiritually good, and its spaciousness allows for these advantages to be enjoyed by all.
An example of this is found among the ten miracles related to the Beis Hamikdash (Avos 5): No person ever remarked to his friend, “There’s no place for me to lodge in Yerushalayim.”
The Gemara cautions that the omission of the mention of bris and Torah in Bircas Ha’aretz would also disqualify our bentshing. These two items are intertwined with each other, and with Eretz Yisrael, in a number of ways: bris milah and Torah represent our distinctiveness as a nation and our special relationship with Hashem, and they’re both conditions for possession of Eretz Yisrael.
The mitzvah of circumcision is not only termed milah, but bris milah, the covenant of circumcision. “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your children as an eternal covenant — to be a G-d to you and your children, and I will give you and your children all of Eretz Canaan as an eternal holding... As for you, My covenant you shall keep, all of your males shall be circumcised” (Bereishis 17).
The terms of the covenant are clearly delineated to Avraham Avinu: Hashem will give his children the Land of Eretz Yisrael if they keep their side of the deal and uphold the mitzvah of bris milah.
If milah is a precondition for the initial gift of the Land, Torah is a condition for its continued possession. Rav Pincus explains why. When a couple gets married and moves into a house, their home represents much more than a piece of real estate. The essential translation of the word bayis is “interior.”
The four walls of a bayis demarcate the interior, private domain of its inhabitants. If their marriage is good, then this couple’s home is the finest expression of their exclusive relationship. Yet if their relationship is compromised, their bayis has lost its essential meaning and purpose.
Marriage is a frequent metaphor for our relationship with our Creator. The basis of this connection, the manner in which mortal man bonds with the Infinite Hashem, is by means of Torah and mitzvos. If we don’t engage in Torah, our relationship weakens, and Eretz Yisrael, our bayis and our homeland — the place where we dwell with Hashem — has largely lost its meaning and its purpose. This is why we must mention Torah in Bircas Ha’aretz.
The Seven Foundations
In Bircas Ha’aretz, we express gratitude not only for Eretz Yisrael, but for a total of seven specific gifts. What do these items have in common? Each is a tool for fulfilling Hashem’s will: 1) we possess a land, a place to serve Him; 2) we experienced Yetzias Mitzrayim, the event that gave us awareness of Hashem; 3) we received the mitzvah of bris milah, which taught us to dedicate both body and soul to serve Him; 4) we merited the Torah, the instructions as to how to fulfill His will; 5) we observe chukim, demonstrating that we can obey His mitzvos without understanding them; 6) we have life itself, the very opportunity to serve our Creator; and 7) we’re provided with food, which gives us the energy to serve Him.
Rav Pam ztz”l famously suggested that a simple but highly effective aid for kavanah and accuracy when reciting Bircas Ha’aretz is to count off these seven items, one by one, as we recite them.
We then wrap up the brachah: V’al hakol — and for all of these, we thank You, Hashem.
Finally, as the brachah nears its close, we mention that Hashem should be praised b’fi kol chai, by the mouths of all living beings, kakasuv, as is stated, “V’achalta v’savata u’veirachta es Hashem Elokecha.”
Yet the mitzvah of u’veirachta is for us, human beings. How does our brachah elicit the praise of Hashem by all of creation, b’fi kol chai — vegetation, animals, planets, angels, and more? The Chevron Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Simcha Zissel Broide ztz”l, describes Klal Yisrael as the conductors and initiators of the symphony that all of creation performs for their Maker. In the words of the Gemara (Chullin 91b): “The malachim do not utter shirah in the heavenly spheres until Yisrael sings their song on the earth below.”
When we play the music of Bircas Hamazon at our tables, the entire universe sings along.
May the inspirations derived from this article serve as an aliyah for the neshamah of my father z”l, Rav Shlomo Leib ben Chaim Yisroel Moerman, who was greatly devoted to the mitzvah of Bircas Hamazon.
Mrs. Shani Mendlowitz is menaheles of Bais Yaakov Seminary of Montreal, and a popular lecturer for women.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 729)
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