Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: In a zimmun, one who recites: “Blessed be the One from Whose food we have eaten and through Whose goodness [uv’tuvo] we live”, he is a Torah scholar.
However, one who recites: “Blessed be the One from Whose food we have eaten and from Whose goodness [ume’tuvo] we live”, he is an ignoramus.
What is the difference between these formulations, and why is it so important?
It’s a tricky one, but what seems to be in play is a question about the relationship between man and God. If we use the phrase ‘from Whose goodness’ there seems to some kind of distancing going on. He, God, is distant, and by some sort of action, by virtue of His separate choosing, we live, we are nourished, we are sustained.
This is all very well, but the more we think of God as separate, the more we face difficulties in understanding how we could be in a relationship with Him, or indeed know anything whatsoever about Him.
Indeed, there are actually three separate levels here: God, His Goodness, our lives. We are very far from the ‘He’.
Using the other formulation, uv’tuvo, suggests that we live through a much more intimate connection to His Goodness. We might translate it as ‘in His Goodness’, which conjures up images of us basking in the light and warmth of His Goodness, and finding the inspiration to live as a result of that.
This reading allows also for a qualification of the meaning of ‘we live’. If we are plugged into Goodness, if we allow it to enlighten and guide us, then we will be genuinely alive, our existence will have purpose, meaning and the possibility of effecting social change.
More than this, it feels like there is a lot less separation here between God and his Goodness. Goodness is an aspect of the Divine, it is a fundamental facet of God’s being, it is not some moral option that He may choose to engage with. In this sense, strangely, He is less free than we are – medieval scholastics, this would be the time to get wound up – we have the choice whether to be good or not, for Him there is no choice, Goodness is simply what He is.
When we live by Goodness, we are acting in harmony with the Divine, we are manifesting Its essence in this world, and we are showing ourselves to be intimately sensitive to Its presence.
This personal connection is emphasised again in the next statement of Rabbi Yehuda:
One who recites in a zimmun: And by His goodness we live, he is a Torah scholar. However, one who recites: And by His goodness they live, he is a fool.
The point of Grace after meals is for us to recognise that our own existence, to the extent that it is profound, dignified and ethically charged, is made possible by the unexpected presence of Goodness in this world. We assert this as a statement of faith, for we can sometimes doubt quite how real or reliable that Goodness actually is.
The person who thinks that Goodness sustains others, but not himself, is doing one of two things. On one level, he could say that God’s Goodness sustains others, but it has nothing to do with him, he is an isolated individual and is untouched by it. That would be a saddening confession.
On another level, he may be expressing a weakness in his own faith, in his capacity to sense and live by principles of Goodness, in his ability to remain true to them when challenged by life. This would be understandable, but the formulation charges us to have faith in ourselves, to push ourselves further in trying to feel our way towards goodness.
This then, is the essence of being a Talmid Chacham, a Student of Wisdom. He must not separate himself from the community, and nor may he separate God from His Goodness. And most importantly of all, he must sense that he himself lives by and is guided by this Goodness, and that the true source of his wisdom is his humility and receptivity before it.
This chimes with one of the first lines we recite every day:
The beginning of wisdom is awe of the Divine (Proverbs 1:7).
Wisdom starts with an acknowledgement of just how very near we are to Goodness. If we can only clear away the trauma, pain and fear which prevent us from embracing it, then we will discover that we can begin to live well again, that we can escape our personal hell and begin a new phase of honest living.