Rav and Rabbi Chiya are having lunch with Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi.
Rabbi Yehuda says to Rav, “Go and wash your hands.” Not surprisingly, Rav is a little taken aback at his host’s candid comment.
Sensing the awkwardness in the room, Rabbi Chiya joins the conversation. “Don’t take it personally. All our master was telling you was to get ready for bentching!”
שְׁלֹשָׁה שֶׁאָכְלוּ כְּאַחַת, חַיָּיבִין לְזַמֵּן
גְּמָ׳ מְנָא הָנֵי מִילֵּי? אָמַר רַב אַסִּי: דְּאָמַר קְרָא ״גַּדְּלוּ לַה׳ אִתִּי וּנְרוֹמְמָה שְׁמוֹ יַחְדָּו״. רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ אָמַר: מֵהָכָא: ״כִּי שֵׁם ה׳ אֶקְרָא הָבוּ גֹדֶל לֵאלֹהֵינוּ״
Mishnah: Three people who ate together are required to form a zimmun (the quorum prior to bentching the Grace after Meals).
Gemara: What is the source? Rav Assi said: For the verse states: “Praise Hashem with me, and we will exalt His name together”. Rabbi Abahu said from here: “Because I call the name of Hashem, let us give praise to our God.”
When Rabbi Yehuda instructed Rav to wash his hands, he misinterpreted his teacher’s intention. Presumably, he took the comment as an affront to his personal hygiene, while Rabbi Yehuda simply meant that he should prepare himself for bentching. But it’s a familiar-sounding story nonetheless. Often we sit down to a meal and hear people say, ‘I’m not going to wash’. Why not? What do they have against washing their hands?
Of course, the hand-washing is not their concern. It’s the bentching that will follow the meal. Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky calls this ‘bentchaphobia.’ Washing means eating bread, which ultimately means doing the long bentching at the end of the meal. It’s much simpler to avoid the bread. And then you won’t have to go to all that effort of bentching later.
Makes sense, right?
Let’s talk about blessing and thanking Hashem. When the chazan reaches the Modim (thanksgiving) prayer, the congregation recites their own special formula: “We give thanks to You . . . for that which we thank You, blessed is the God of thanks.” Rabbeinu Yonah explains the meaning of the prayer: our greatest appreciation to the Almighty is that He has provided us with the opportunity to thank Him!
Think about it in terms of the following analogy. You’ve just dropped your wallet in the street. Suddenly, realizing it’s missing, you go back to the block you think it must have fallen. You walk up and down, but alas, nothing. For the next three hours, you’re frantically worried about who’s picked it up. Are your bank accounts safe? How much cash did you lose? How many hours will you need to stand in line at the registration office to get a new driver’s licence?
And then you get a call from the police station. Sure enough, someone has found the wallet and handed it in. Imagine your unbelievable feeling of joy and gratitude. You ask the officer for the contact details of the angel. But she says that it was dropped off anonymously. How do you feel now? Now you’re the one feeling lost. You want to thank the individual, to show your appreciation. But you can’t. There’s a certain feeling of void inside. An unpaid debt of gratitude.
That’s what Rabbeinu Yonah means by the appreciation we feel towards G-d for granting us the opportunity to give thanks. He provides an overabundance of blessing in our lives. We are brimming with gratitude. Without the Modim prayer, we would feel like we had an unpaid debt. The thanksgiving prayer provides the forum for our feeling of fulfilment. We feel so blessed to have been given the opportunity to thank Him for everything He does for us. Now that’s worth thanking Him for!
Rabbi Chaim of Chernowitz (BMC) teaches that the verse quoted by Rabbi Abahu in our Gemara, “Because I call the name of Hashem, let us give praise to our God” is the source for this idea of being grateful for our ability to give thanks. The meaning of the passuk is that we are excited to praise Hashem because He has given us the opportunity to call His name.
And that’s why we turn to our friends and invite them to bentch with us. We want to share our joy with those sitting with us. They might not be as excited to bentch. They might be suffering from mild bentchaphobia and “washed” reluctantly. The zimmun is a wake-up call that bentching is not a hassle. It’s a fabulous opportunity to give thanks to the Almighty. Had you not washed, you would have missed out on the opportunity! Bentching is literally a blessing!
And that’s really the attitude we should be feeling towards all mitzvos. The simple translation of the word ‘mitzvah’ is ‘commandment’. But when you’re forced to do something, there’s an automatic resistance. It feels like a burden.
But mitzvah has another meaning. It also means ‘connection,’ related to the word ‘tzavsa.’ When you do a mitzvah, you connect with our Father in Heaven. Mitzvos are not hassles. They’re opportunities. Every mitzvah you do, you get closer to G-d.
It’s the same in our human relationships. Think about the interactions between a husband and wife. What happens when you surprise your spouse with ‘breakfast in bed’? You strengthen the bonds of your marriage. Your love grows stronger. Nobody forced you to do it. You saw an opportunity to please your spouse and made the effort.
But breakfast in bed is fun. How about some of the household ‘chores’? Like taking out the rubbish, which is a bit of a hassle, isn’t it? But it could also be an opportunity. If I take out the rubbish every time without my spouse having to ask me, I’ve created multiple opportunities to demonstrate my commitment to the relationship and strengthen the bonds of love. And there’s no shortage of such opportunities. Every time you pick up the broom, tea-towel (dish-cloth), or do the laundry – before being asked – you’ve made your relationship stronger. It may seem mundane, but every sweep of the broom can become an act of love.
That’s the way mitzvos work. The Almighty wants to be close to us and so he gave us an abundance of opportunities. If you would think about bentching as an opportunity to utter G-d’s name – an action we are otherwise so cautious about engaging in – you’d be running to wash before a meal! What’s more, ‘bracha’ is related to the word ‘breicha’, meaning ‘pool’. When you make a bracha, you open up the tap to the great Heavenly pool of the Almighty’s bounty.
Every bracha, every mitzvah, is an unbelievable opportunity. May you maximize the opportunities to get close to Hashem, and turn the tap wide open to receive an overabundance of His blessing!