Bread is the food man extracts from nature, the joint product of the natural world and man’s mastery of it. Thus, it represents the intelligence through which we produce the means of our existence.
But it would be mistaken to believe that this intelligence is all man needs to exist. The real factor in man’s sustenance is hashgachah. Forgetting that is a dangerous delusion. If we persuade ourselves that only we can provide our livelihood, concern for our families’ survival is such a legitimate motive that we could easily lose sight of all other considerations. We could convince ourselves that anything we get out of nature and each other assures our livelihood, regardless of the means we use to get it. With this attitude, we will not care whether we earn it using methods approved by Hashem or not.
Even if this idea—that we can rely on human power alone for parnassah—does not cause us to stray, it may lead us to believe that we have succeeded unless we provide for not only our own future but also for our children and grandchildren. Concern for parnassah can become an endless race, leaving us neither time nor energy for spiritual concerns.
This is why Hashem led us through the midbar for forty years. There, without all the tools that normally enable us to earn a livelihood, He made clear what is too easily ignored. Instead of feeding us with bread stamped with human achievement, He fed us the mann given by G-d alone. He had it fall day after day, to every soul in our families, demonstrating His personal care for every person great and small. Thus, we learned that human existence does not depend on bread, or nature, alone. We can live by anything Hashem decides. If, because of loyalty to Him, we must forgo a tool of parnassah, we are not lost. Even in the midst of plenty, we owe our livelihood only to Hashem.
This is the source for the mitzvah of Birkas Hamazon, which applies after eating bread. The purpose of the mitzvah is to remind us of Hashem’s personal care, which we became aware of through the miracle of the mann. Bentching is meant to cultivate this awareness even under ordinary conditions. Every piece of bread should be seen as a gift from Hashem, like the mann dropped from heaven to the dor midbar.
The first brachah of Birkas Hamazon, Hazan, was instituted by Moshe Rabbeinu in gratitude for the mann, yet does not mention themann at all. The message: there is no difference whether we are supported by mann falling from the sky or by the apparent fruits of our own labor. In either case, Hashem alone is the source of our sustenance.
Have a wonderful Shabbos,
Moshe Pogrow, Director, Ani Maamin Foundation
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Please note: The “Gem of the Week,” is based on excerpts from Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l’s commentary on Chumash, with permission from the publisher.