The Torah portion of Ekev continues Moses’s main discourse in Deuteronomy, a combination of soaring rhetorical flourishes and reminders to remember the past. The second paragraph of the Shema comes from this week’s Torah portion, as do the classic words, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the Lord your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul.” (Deut. 10:12)

In the middle of all of this is a beautiful passage about the land of Israel: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land of flowing streams and pools of water, with fountains and springs that gush out in the valleys and hills. It is a land of wheat and barley; of grapevines, fig trees, and pomegranates; of olive oil and honey.” (Deut. 8:7-8). This is standard Deuteronomic stuff, and not especially worth mentioning, except for the fact that from this passage–verse 8, specifically–the Rabbis derived an important halakhic concept,  namely the order in which various foods should be blessed.

A classic test of a yeshiva student’s skill was to place a table full of foods in front of him and see if he could correctly determine the proper order in which they were to be eaten. Verse 8 establishes such an order: Wheat and barley (grains), grapes, figs and pomegranates (fruits), olive oil and honey (foods derived from a process). So if one had bread, an apple, olive oil, and wine on the table, the correct order in which to eat them would be: bread, wine, apple, oil, following the order of the verse. There are tricks within the system (such as, for instance, the way we drink wine on Shabbat and holidays before we eat bread; we therefore cover the bread, so as not to violate the order prescribed by this verse).

Why do I bring up such a seemingly mundane item? Because Moses’s next words give us the commandment of Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meals: “When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.” Moses instructs thanksgiving over food quite early on in the commandments of Deuteronomy–before the social legislation of the upcoming Torah portions; before the commandments about the holidays, or even about idolatry (Moses recounts the episode of the Golden Calf in the chapter after this one). This is very significant, because it establishes that awareness of our eating is one of the key foundation stones of the Torah’s envisioned civilization. As Moses reminds the Israelites a few verses earlier: “Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

There is a growing movement among Jews and in the general society to be much more conscious of our food–of where it comes from, what it consists of, who made it, its carbon footprint. This is a very important thing, and it marks a return to the values of the Torah. Next week we will receive the laws of kashrut again from Moses; but this week, even before being reminded of the technicalities of kashrut, we are reminded to be aware, to pay attention, to be humble, and to be thankful. We indeed live in world like the one Moses describes: we “live in cities with walls that reach to the sky,” where “the people are strong and tall.” It is precisely in this environment that Moses reminds the Israelites and us that we must pay attention and remember the giant significance of tiny actions.

Shabbat shalom.

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